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.

Agnostic Preview by Michael Bloor

(first published in Potato Soup Journal, July 5th, 2021)

At first when I died, it was rather predictable. Beginning with that out-of-body-experience thing: I’m hovering, up near the ceiling, in the local Accident & Emergency Department, looking down on a rather battered and splattered me, plus an attendant nurse and junior doctor. Then it’s the dark-tunnel thingy, with a wee pin-prick of light that’s starting to get bigger and brighter, and bigger and brighter.

And then…. Pop! I’m in a largish, empty room with white walls. Now it starts to get different…

The white door opens and Leonard Cohen comes in. He consults his clipboard: ‘Hello, erm, Malcolm Barnstable? Welcome to the First Circle; I’m your guide. My name’s Cohen, Leonard Cohen. According to my records here, you were run over by a herd of dairy cows. We don’t get many of those.’

It took me a second or two to gather my wits. ‘Got you now: it’s Dante’s First Circle of Hell, for all those nice pagans. And you’re the stand-in guide for Virgil, as a fellow poet?’

‘That’s pretty much it, Malcolm. Call me Leonard, why dontcha? Virgil’s still knocking about. But, with the numbers coming in these days, he’s needing a helping hand. So Percy and I now do the English speakers.

‘Percy?’

‘Yeah, Percy Shelley. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,” and all that.’

‘I see. Er, you’re not wearing laurel leaves on your brow?’

‘Nope, no leaves. They were offered, but I prefer the fedora – it’s kind of a trademark. But Percy wears the old laurel leaves. He said it was either that or some seaweed. You’re stuck with me because you’re down in the records as “agnostic.” If you’d been signed up as “atheist,” you’d ‘ve got Percy. You want your tour just now? Or would you like a spot of nectar first?’

I settled for the nectar, which I could definitely develop a taste for. As tactfully as I could, I asked about Leonard’s co-habitation of the Agnostic First Circle.

‘Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s true that, strictly speaking, I’m a Jewish Zen Buddhist, but that’s a pretty small constituency. And you might say that agnosticism is a central tenet of Zen Buddhist practice. Though if you had the inclination, I could nit-pick that one with you. After all, you’ll find you have plenty of time here for long discussions of abstract…’

And then: Woah! Oooff! Ouch! Suddenly, I’m back in Accident & Emergency.

Stirring Ambition

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, June 26th 2021 – National Flash Fiction Day)

As they’d agreed that morning, the three old women met again at the crossroads on the heath, when the sun was sinking. They were beggars, clad in beggars’ rags. War was once more in the land and beggars’ pickings were thinner than their rags. One of them had held high hopes of a sea captain’s wife that she’d call on, offering to bless his ship, The Tiger. But her journey had been fruitless and her mood was bitter: they were facing another night in the open.
There was the sound of drums, and of hooves and harness on the stony road. Their mood changed from rancour to fright. They couldn’t out-run horses: their only salvation lay in fawning and flattery. Peering into the evening murk, they made out two horsemen, richly dressed. One of the women whispered: ‘See the leading horseman, surely that’s the laird of Glamis?’
‘Your eyesight’s getting worse, Elspeth. That’s the laird of Cawdor there, not Glamis.’
‘Cawdor, my arse, Jean! I was born and raised just half a mile from Glamis Castle and I’d know the laird anywhere…’
‘Pish, Elspeth. Only yesterday evening, you mistook that badger for a piglet. Hush now, here they come.’
Elspeth ignored her and moved to the middle of the road. ‘All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!’
Jean, tuttered, grabbed Elpeth’s arm and called out, at the top of her voice, ‘Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!’
Their companion, Annie, slow in wits but determined to play her part, stepped into the road. ‘All Hail Macbeth, er… that shalt be king hereafter!’
The rider seemed rather taken aback by Annie’s greeting (as indeed were Elspeth and Jean). He reined in his horse. His companion drew alongside. ‘To me you speak not. Speak then to me!’
All three women together: ‘Hail!’
Elspeth, giving it her best shot: ‘Lesser than Macbeth, and greater.’
Jean, following her lead: ‘Not so happy, yet much happier.’
Annie, picking up the theme: ‘Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.’
Knowing how to quit while they were ahead, the women stepped aside and faded into the dusk of the evening. Elspeth muttered to Jean, ‘I 
still reckon that was the laird of Glamis.’
‘Huh, I’m 
still sure you’re wrong. And you were maybe a mite too fulsome, Annie. Still… no harm done.’

Wee Willie Winkie and the Sma’ Glen

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, No. 90, pp.67-72, Summer 2021)

A group of raucous, young, Edinburgh lawyers and bankers, with a collective misplaced sense of entitlement, were drowning out civilised pub conversation (‘Hey Charles, why did the woman cross the road?’ – ‘Search me Alistair, how the hell did she get out of the kitchen?’). So Jim McLeish and his old shipmate, Davie Donnelly, decided to drink-up and leave. It was then, just as he was going out the pub door, that Jim saw the face.

Jim opened the door and turned to check that Davie was right behind him. He was. But behind Davie, in the middle-distance, Jim saw Nonoy – the bosun from the tanker – staring at him from a table beside the Gents. Jim stopped dead and Davie cannoned into him. The tide of lawyers and bankers, mysteriously ebbing and flowing, then covered Nonoy from view.

‘Problem, Jim?’

‘I think I saw Nonoy, my Filipino bosun, over the far side of the bar.’

Davie peered back into the bar: ‘Nae Filipinos in here, Jim. Surely, he’ll be on his way back to Manila by now wi’ the rest of the ratings?’

Jim shrugged and sighed: ‘Aye. Let’s away then, Davie.’ He didn’t speak his thought, that after four months of working 16-hour days, seven days a week, he was maybe starting to hallucinate. When the chemical tanker had docked at Grangemouth that afternoon, there’d been a complete crew change. A ships agent had been there to meet the tanker and take the Filipino ratings, Nonoy included, off on the first stage of their long journey back to the Philippines to await a new contract and a new ship. Jim hadn’t seen them leave: he’d been busy briefing his replacement as the ship’s mate, Nigel Walker, about the unfinished maintenance schedule. Nigel wasn’t best pleased that it was unfinished – he have to try and finish Jim’s schedule of work, as well as his own. Jim had the excuse of the filthy weather they’d been through, but he knew that the real reason was the continuing sullen uncooperativeness of the bosun: no ship can operate efficiently without a good bosun, who acts as a kind of foreman to the rest of the crew.

The next day, Jim awakened feeling sluggish. Seafaring is a young man’s job and Jim’s forty-two year-old body needed more than a single night’s sleep to recover. Nevertheless he was heartened by Mary’s porridge and Davie’s home-made loganberry jam, and he set off for his beloved cottage about half past ten.

The Sma’ Glen is a couple of hours drive north of Edinburgh. In 1745, two score of men had taken communion in Amulree Kirk, before marching south with Prince Charles Stuart and his Jacobite army. But now Jim’s cottage was the only surviving dwelling in the glen. As he came over the hill from Crieff and saw the cottage, and the glen winding away in front of him, he felt the relief of the returning exile.

It was only as he indicated to turn into the track to the cottage that he noticed a Ford Focus still behind him, one that had been in his rear-view mirror since Crieff. It now pulled out to overtake and, for an instant in his rear-view mirror, Jim saw (or thought he saw) Nonoy behind the wheel.

For a long minute, Jim sat stunned, watching the Ford dwindle into the distance as it progressed up the glen. He recalled the glimpse of Nonoy in the pub last night: two brief mystery sightings or two hallucinations? A practical man, he decided to postpone further consideration until he’d settled in.

Mrs Forsyth, his cleaner, had been in the day before. The cottage felt warm and welcoming: she must have put on the central heating. He dumped his case in the bedroom and his shopping in the kitchen. He filled a kettle, opened a bottle of milk, and stared sightlessly out the window while the kettle boiled. Waiting for the tea to brew, he lit the kindling that Mrs Forsyth had left in the grate. It was only after he’d cooked and eaten an omelette, opened a can of beer, and sat down before the fire, that he then returned to the subject of Nonoy.

Nonoy’s sullenness had made Jim’s last months a bit of a nightmare. It was all down to a stupid misunderstanding. Jim and Nonoy had got on well for the first month of the trip. Jim had noted and approved that Nonoy, who was tall and muscular for a Filipino, kept the crew working well. He and Nonoy had fallen into the kind of bantering, friendly relationship common in all-male societies. Nonoy had been particularly taken with an old British seafarer saying that Jim had quoted: ‘If you’re looking for sympathy on board ship, you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.’ Nonoy had then found occasion to repeat this wisdom pretty much every day, each time with accompanying it with a great gust of laughter. This might have become tedious, but Jim found Nonoy’s laughter infectious and he was too experienced an officer to wish to prejudice a good shipboard working relationship, just for the sake of quashing a stale joke.

Nevertheless, his and Nonoy’s working relationship was heading for the rocks. The wreck happened very early one morning. Jim had just come off his bridge-watch and had headed for the ship’s laundry, to collect some dry clean clothes before turning in for a few hours of precious sleep. The officers’ cabins had en-suite bathrooms, but not the crew cabins – their lavatories and showers were beside the laundry. As Jim emerged from the laundry, he saw Nonoy come out of his cabin heading for the showers. He was dressed only in a large, ragged t-shirt which failed to fully cover all his masculine bits and pieces. Jim smiled a greeting and sang out: ‘Wee Willie Winkie ran through the toon, upstairs, doonstairs, in his night-goon.’ Nonoy had looked at him in surprise and passed silently on into the showers. Jim had thought no more of it.

It was a couple of days later that he noticed a change in Nonoy’s behaviour: poor performance by the deck painters that Nonoy was leading, a failure to catch Jim’s eye, monosyllabic responses, and so on. But Jim had been too busy to give it much thought, until Gerry Malone, the Chief Engineer, remarked on it.

Gerry Malone, an elderly, over-weight, slovenly Liverpudlian, was in charge of a modern, automated engine-room and left all the routine maintenance to Darek, his hard-working, Polish, second engineer. This left Malone largely free to drink endless cups of tea up on the bridge and to distract Jim from his work with his rambling, irritating chatter: “What crap have you been talking to that big nutter, Nonoy? ‘E sez to me, ‘Why does the Mate call me Wee Willie Winkie? I know what a wee willie is, but what is a winkie?’ I told ‘im, a winkie is jus’ another word for a willie.”

Jim raised his eyes reluctantly from his chart corrections and gave Malone a long stare: ‘You said THAT?? Noo the man thinks I’ve been insulting his manhood. Damn it, that’s why he’s been sae broody. He’s gonna brood an’ brood on that, eh? Like as not, he’ll be comin’ after me wi’ a machete. Why did you nae tell him about the Wee Willie Winkie nursery rhyme? Jeez…’

‘You’re a big, strong fella, Jim, you don’ wanna take any crap from these Filipinos. You don’ wanna get too friendly with ‘em.’ Malone smiled stupidly and took a sip of his tea. Jim continued to stare at him. The tension was broken by the arrival on the bridge of the ship’s Master, Captain Sandy Morrison, with an urgent email from head office. One thing drives out another. While Morrison and Jim discussed the email, Malone quietly left the bridge.

The sea rolled on and the days rolled on. The tanker shuttled back and forth between Grangemouth and a scattering of Baltic ports. To Jim’s mind, Nonoy’s sullenness seemed to pollute the whole ship, but Jim could never find both the time and the determination to have it out with Nonoy. Shipboard conversations can be pretty wide-ranging, but for one seafarer to explain to another that he had no intention to belittle the other’s penis would certainly be pushing the boundaries of permissible messroom discussions. Initially, Jim told himself that Nonoy would maybe get over it. When it was plain that Nonoy wasn’t getting over it, Jim weakly told himself that the trip would be over soon; he and Nonoy would be unlikely to ever crew together again, and so he’d never have to deal with the problem.

Still staring at the cottage fire, Jim now recognised that – if he hadn’t hallucinated Nonoy’s fleeting appearances in the pub and the glen – he would indeed have to deal with the problem after all. But everything could wait til morning.

September is often a wet month in the Highlands, but the next morning promised to be a fine day, and fine days in September should be taken advantage of. As Jim fried his bacon, he could see from the kitchen window that the sun was burning away the tatters of mist from the mountains that crowded up against the glen. Four months on a ship barely forty metres long had stoked an almost hysterical need to walk and walk and walk. He knew it would torture his wasted leg muscles, but he decided to climb Ben Chonzie, to the west of the glen. Ben Chonzie was a popular hill, not least because of the large population of hares and ptarmigan that lived on the plateau summit, but almost all walkers approached it from the other side, where there was a car park and an estate track that ran most of the way to the summit. The route Jim would take, especially on a weekday in September, pretty much guaranteed that he’d have the climb all to himself.

The first part of the route took Jim along the public road, which took the same line as the military road built by General Wade in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion (and gratefully followed by Bonnie Prince Charlie and his men in the 1745 rebellion). He passed the great rough-squared boulder (‘Ossian’s Stone’) and crossed the River Almond at Wade’s bridge. Typically, on Jim’s walks, for the first mile or so, his mind would be distracted by concerns of work or family. Recurrent themes were his divorce and the deaths of his parents, both of whom had died at times when he was away at sea. On this occasion, as he tramped, he recalled old stories he’d heard about brooding Filipinos: a simmering cook who had eventually snapped and chased his friend Kosta round the galley and the messroom with a knife; a vicious brawl that had erupted, seemingly out of nothing, outside a club in a Brazilian port. He understood the brooding: the white senior officers had permanent contracts, the Filipino ratings were casuals on short-term contracts; their future contracts depended on favourable reports from senior officers; the disparities in earnings were grotesque. And he understood the sudden violence: it was the explosive revolt of the slaves. He understood it, he deeply disliked it, but he couldn’t remake the world to his liking.

Eventually, the physical rhythm of the walk soothed away troubling thoughts. He breathed deeply the air of the North, noted the purpling of the heather and the deep green of the braken, and tried and failed to distinguish whether a distant circling bird was an eagle or a buzzard. He struck upward from the glen, passing through a large clump of ragged birch and scattered boulders. Almost at his feet, he noticed a large brown mushroom on a grey, stippled stalk. Years at sea had made Jim a careless and indiscriminate eater, but he dearly loved mushrooms. He recognised the brown mushroom as a boletus, one of his favourites, and noticed several more of them – deeper in the wood. He took a pork pie (his lunch) out of its plastic bag, put it in the side pocket of his rucksack, and – cutting through the mushroom stalks with his knife – quickly filled the plastic bag with half a dozen boletus mushrooms, which he promised himself would be the highlight of his evening meal. As he was tying the bag and sheathing his knife, he had a shock…

Passing at the edge of the birchwood, treading Jim’s former path, was Nonoy. Jim watched Nonoy move past the wood and start to pick his way up the steep side of the glen. Nonoy had gone onwards a hundred metres when Jim made his decision. He emerged from the wood and hailed Nonoy like a long-long friend:

‘Nonoy! Nonoy! What on earth are ye doin’ here? Fantastic!’

Nonoy turned and retraced his steps. Noticing the sheath-knife Jim was still holding, he smiled uncertainly.

‘Seein’ ye here, of all places, Nonoy! A walkin’ holiday in Scotland afore ye head fur hame?’

Nonoy nodded.

Jim gestured towards Nonoy’s trainers: ‘Hope you’re nae lookin’ fur sympathy fur your soakin’ trainers.’

Nonoy shook his head, paused, and then smiled broadly: ‘I find it in the dictionary between shit and syphilis, eh Chief?’

Jim smiled in return and showed Nonoy the contents of his plastic bag: ‘Been pickin’ mushrooms.’

Nonoy examined them carefully: ‘You sure you can eat these, Chief?’

‘Yep. Gonna cook ‘em for ma tea. These ‘re the most delicious mushrooms in the entire world. Want to come back to mine, for your tea?’

‘And eat mushrooms?’

‘Sure.’

‘OK Chief. We both die together.’ Nonoy thought this was funnier than Jim.

They sat down on a couple of rocks and shared Jim’s pork pie and flask of coffee. Nonoy thoughtfully compared Jim’s walking boots to his own dew-soaked trainers. Jim noticed their feet were about the same size. He said he had an old pair of leather walking boots at the cottage that would fit Nonoy: there was nothing wrong with them, they were just a bit old-fashioned – heavier than his current pair. Nonoy was impressed by the fact that they were made of leather. Jim pulled out his map and indicated a couple of walks that Nonoy could take on his fictional walking holiday, once he was properly shod.

The wind was now freshening from the north, funnelling down the glen. By silent agreement, they abandoned the Ben Chonzie objective and retraced their steps. They passed the tumbled remains of a couple of crofts. As Jim’s own cottage came into sight, Nonoy said: ‘I see several ruined houses, Chief. Yours is only one left. Why everybody go away?’

Jim ignored the fact that Nonoy already knew where he stayed. ‘It’s an auld story, Nonoy. See yon big boulder squeezed in the space between the river and the road?’

Nonoy nodded.

‘Well, nearly three hundred years ago, an army general was supervisin’ building a road through the glen. He also built this bridge.’ They leaned on the parapet.

‘The general decided that the boulder was in the way o’ the road. He had his soldiers move it aside, tae where it rests now.’

‘That’s some job, Chief. Very heavy.’

‘Aye, right – very heavy. And what they didnae realise was that the boulder was a gravestone. It marked the grave of a very great man, a poet called Ossian, who lived a thousand years ago. When they moved the stone they found some bones underneath. The folk that lived in the glen were afraid of the soldiers, but that night they cam up wi’ torches and gathered up Ossian’s bones, and took him away to a secret place for re-burial.’

‘Mm. That the right thing to do.’

‘It wis the right thing tae do, Nonoy. But it wis too late. The bones had been disturbed. An’ so a curse cam on the glen: freezing winters an’ wet, cold summers – crops failed an’ cattle died; young men went awa’ tae war an’ never returned; people starved.

The wind was rising at their backs and a few heavy drops of rain began to fall. Nonoy shivered: ‘This place is haunted, Chief?’

‘Aye, that’s right. Finally, there wis only a few folk left. Eventually, they all either died, or left the glen to the ghost, and moved away.’

‘But you’re still here, Chief?’

Jim nodded: ‘That’s right. But I’m sort-of-protected. Ye see, I’m the last man that kens where those bones wis re-buried.’

Both men had been looking away down the glen at Jim’s cottage. Nonoy now turned to look at Jim. It was a long look. ‘Forget the mushrooms and the boots, Chief. I go now.’

Nonoy walked back across the bridge, hunching his shoulders against the storm.

Ambition

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, April 10th, 2021)

Like many toddlers, John was asked what he wanted to be, when he grew up. Surprisingly, John answered that he wanted to be an Old Age Pensioner. He’d been spending time with his Grandad, who had his own shed.

In his mid-teens, John secretly decided that an ideal profession would be that of a professional sperm donor. At a student party, he told a woman that he wanted to be the person who chose the paintings for reproduction on the covers of the Penguin Modern Classics series (she was impressed).

Now he’s 66 and his world has come full circle.

The Long Shadow of the Coal Tip

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, March 30th, 2021)

There was no phone signal in that narrow valley. Three days of heavy rain had caused the river to burst its banks and flood the road, just above the bridge. The flood swept the car half off the road and into the hedge. I’m not as nimble as I used to be, but I managed to get out with nothing worse than a soaking. Fortunately, I’d remembered the torch in the glove compartment; the night was black as pitch.

Downstream, the valley broadened and there was the chance of a phone signal, but I didn’t dare to cross the old humpbacked bridge, already flooded except at its apex, and with part of its parapet swept away. Instead, I chose to struggle back up the valley road, battling against the flood, even though I couldn’t recall any houses this high up the valley.

A tree had been uprooted and had fallen obliquely across the road (it must’ve happened very soon after I’d driven past). As I struggled over it, I caught sight of a light, up above the road to the right. It was a steep climb up the bank; I broke off a dead branch to help propel me upward.

The house proved to be an old farmhouse, converted into a holiday home. As I hit the door-knocker, soaked through and shivering uncontrollably, I was conscious that I wasn’t looking my best.

The householder was a cautious, elderly party, about my age. I felt I was at my last extremity: I shouted my pleas through the closed door. It seemed an age before the door was opened, but it was probably only a minute or so. Once I was in his porch, my saviour was most apologetic, explaining (curiously) that it was the storm that concerned him, rather than the visitor. He parked me in front of the kitchen range, fetched me a towel and a whisky, and then we made plans. Owen, as he was called, had a Land Rover and offered to run me home, after the storm had blown over. We’d have to go the long way round, on the Heads of the Valleys road, because of the fallen tree.

I learned that he was a ships engineer by training, but in the 1980s he’d struck out on his own and set up an engineering workshop manufacturing components for the new Liquefied Natural Gas carriers. He’d prospered and his company now had more than a hundred employees at two sites in the South Wales Valleys. But now he was semi-retired and spent quite a bit of his time working for the local charitable trust he’d established with the company profits.


I’d been involved in the shipping industry myself and we bonded (as old men do) over the unfortunate turn of past events. In this case, it was the sad shrinkage of the once enormous British mercantile marine over the last forty years.

Emboldened by Owen’s kindliness and his whisky, I wondered how, considering his fear of storms, he ever could have gone to sea.

Owen fell silent and I felt that I had abused his hospitality. I apologised, and Owen smiled and shook his head. ‘No, no. That fear only crept up on me gradually as I got older. It’s post-traumatic shock syndrome. You see, I’m an Aberfan survivor. Like some of the other school children who survived the disaster, I only began to suffer flash-backs and panic attacks as I got older.’

Startled out of the state of numb stupefaction that I’d settled into, huddled beside Owen’s warm kitchen range, I was taken back to those dolorous black-and-white TV images from 1966. The sight of the miners from Merthyr Vale Colliery toiling away in the ruins of Pantglas Junior School, looking for the bodies of 109 of their own children. Children that were suffocated and crushed by countless tons of black slurry, when the spoil tip above the valley was swept down onto the school by torrential rains. I remembered my shock at witnessing my big, strong father’s silent tears as he listened to a Welsh Baptist minister speaking on the TV at the end of the same news item.

I saw Owen with new eyes. ‘You know, that surely makes your achievements in life all the greater… To have come through all that, built up your business, set up your trust…’

Owen shook his head again and threw a couple more lumps of birchwood into the range. ‘Did you know that Elvis had a still-born twin?’

‘No, I didn’t.’

‘Yeah. Elvis reckoned that he was living for his twin, as well as himself. He was driven.’ Owen pushed at the logs with a poker. ‘Well, that’s sort-of how I feel. I’m living for those dead children too. I need to do my best for them. That’s how I justify being a survivor.’

He walked to the window and looked out; the porch light shone in the yard. ‘The rain’s almost off. We’ll give it a couple of hours and then get you home. Meantime, how about poached eggs on toast.’

Captain Carey’s Luck

Michael Bloor

(first published in Literally Stories, March 5th, 2021)

I came across the manuscript below in a second-hand shop in Simla, the former British hill-station in the foothills of the Himalayas, among some papers previously belonging to a Victorian military surgeon. The ms was seemingly written in Bombay (now Mumbai) and signed by Captain Jahleel Brenton Carey of the 98th Regiment of Foot (later to become the South Wales Borderers). It is dated the 23rd of February, 1883 (two days before his death, aged thirty six), and appears to be written as a kind of testament.

Carey had seen action in Honduras in 1867, where he was mentioned in dispatches, and he served with the British ambulance group in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. But he went on to achieve some notoriety in the Zulu War, by being implicated in the death in 1879 of the Prince Imperial, Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, the twenty-three year-old only son and heir of the deposed Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and godson of Pope Pius IX and of Queen Victoria. The Prince Imperial, who was accompanying the British forces in the Zulu War as an observer, was slain as part of a small reconnaissance patrol attacked by a large Zulu force. Carey (a Lieutenant in 1879) escaped from the slaying on horseback with four troopers and was subsequently found guilty at a court-martial of ‘misbehaviour before the enemy’ and sent back to the UK under arrest. The guilty finding was later withdrawn on a technicality by Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, head of the Army. Carey took the brave but quixotic action of returning to his regiment, later posted to India. However, he was shunned by many of his fellow officers. Field Marshall Wolseley’s comment may be typical: ‘he had… better… start in some line of life more congenial with his cowardly heart… the greengrocer or the undertaker calling might suit him.’

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Some say that our war against the Zulus was blighted by devilish practices, and that the massacre the Zulus inflicted upon us at Isandlwana back in January 1879 was early evidence of a curse. It was certainly a terrible defeat of arms: it is said that more British officers perished at Isandlwana than in the entire Waterloo campaign. Indeed, our commanding officer, Colonel Glyn, has acted like one cursed ever since – like a dead man walking. At my court martial, he scarce uttered a word.

Am I also cursed? The Zulu people are said to both believe in, and practice, witchcraft. The troops, always a superstitious lot, were full of talk about Zulu witchcraft back in ’79. To my regret, I have recently spoken to the chaplain here about this. He merely snorted and twirled his moustaches. A stupid, complacent man, he has clearly been infected by the contempt and hostility directed towards me in the Officers’ Mess. How I miss the wise counsels of my dear father, no ordinary clergyman.

This pain and fever sows passing doubts in me, but I have always held hitherto that there is a clear distinction to be made between being cursed and being unlucky. And certainly I was unlucky in the Zulu campaign. Yet it did not seem so at first. I served under Colonel Harrisson, tasked with military intelligence. Harrisson, a Royal Engineer, interpreted this task as a largely that of map-making: he had little notion of reconnaissance and gave me a pretty free hand, once he found me to be a competent officer.

In May 1879 (I forget the exact date), the Prince Imperial was also assigned to our section. I discovered later that this was because on two previous occasions he had been attached to patrolling troops and, without waiting for orders, he had galloped off pursuing possible Zulu sightings. His exasperated superiors, in effect, confined him to camp, drawing maps. At the time, I thought his arrival to be a fortunate occurrence: we got on well, and I reflected that the friendship of the godson of the Queen would hardly disadvantage me in future army preferment. What’s more, I liked him: determination to distinguish one’s self on the battlefield is an attractive quality in a young officer. And I fancy he liked me: the Careys are an old Channel Islands family and, by tradition, we are educated in France rather than England; so it must have been attractive to the Prince to be able to converse freely with someone in his native tongue. Who knows what direction my career might have taken, if it had not been for the events of June 1st, 1879?

The Prince was clearly not enamoured with map-making as an occupation. He carried with him the sword that his great-uncle, Napoleon I, had carried at the Battle of Austerlitz: he saw military glory as a path to political advancement, like his great-uncle. The Bonapartist exiles in England already styled him, Napoleon IV, hoping for a triumphal return to power in France. Chafing for a chance of action, the Prince asked Colonel Harrisson if he might go out on patrol to verify some map details and select a suitable spot for a new camp. Harrisson knew that the Prince had been confined to camp for his earlier reckless behaviour and should certainly have referred the request to his own superiors. But he didn’t do so. Perhaps Harrisson too was hoping that the good opinion of the Prince would further Harrisson’s own career? Or perhaps Harrisson was simply over-awed by the Prince? If so, I can sympathise: I was over-awed myself.

I was also to take part in the reconnaissance patrol. The Prince and I were both lieutenants, but I was the senior and so the natural choice to lead the patrol. At my court-martial, Harrisson stated that I should have been in command. However, my recollection is that Harrisson told me that the patrol was at the Prince’s initiative, to select a suitable future campsite for the advancing troops, and I was not to interfere. Certainly, the Prince took charge from the outset: I only felt able to offer suggestions.

The patrol consisted of the Prince, myself, two non-commissioned officers, four troopers, and a native guide. A further six troopers were also assigned to the patrol, but mistakenly reported to the wrong tent. Eager to be away, the Prince declined to wait for the missing troopers. In fairness to the Prince, I should state that much of the ground that the patrol was to cover had previously been subject to earlier patrols. I had no misgivings at that point.

My misgivings came later: in the mid-afternoon we came upon a Zulu kraal. The huts were deserted, but showed signs of recent occupation. The Prince ordered the men to dismount, unsaddle the horses and allow them to graze. The guide was dispatched to fetch water for coffee. No guard was set, although the tall tambootie grass and a nearby deep gully might offer concealment to an enemy. But, initially uneasy, I was soon lulled by the Prince’s affable conversation. He was a young man enjoying himself, and I – only a few years his senior – was infected by his mood. I recall that we chatted amiably over coffee and tobacco about Napoleon I’s Italian campaign in 1796.

After half an hour or so, I suggested that perhaps we should saddle up. The Prince replied, ‘Just another ten minutes.’ Thereupon the guide reported that he had seen a lone Zulu on the higher ground above the kraal. The order was then immediately given to saddle up, but it took several minutes to round up the strayed horses. I had already mounted when the Prince gave the other ranks the order, ‘Prepare to mount.’

Yet before mounting could be completed, there was a fusillade of shots. The enemy were using carbines seized in their victory at Isandlwana, but not to great effect – only one of our troopers was shot. More than forty Zulus emerged from the bush, shouting their war-cry and sprinting for the patrol, whose only chance lay in flight. The Prince was a good horseman, but his was a new and nervous mount: his horse bolted, with the Prince clinging to the saddle holster. The leather of the holster tore and the Prince fell. Because of the uneven ground and tall grass, only one of the fleeing party, Corporal Grubb, saw the Prince Imperial’s last moments: seven warriors closed on the Prince, who could only fire twice before falling to the Zulu assegais – slain by an ambition which out-stripped all circumspection.

I rallied what remained of the troop some distance away. Two troopers and the guide, beside the Prince, had been slain. It was evident that the five of us would achieve nothing by turning and charging the large enemy force. I gave the order to return to camp.

We were not well received. The next day, a large column set out to recover the Prince’s body. As they departed, an enraged French journalist shouted, ‘Yesterday, the Prince left this camp with but seven companions. Today a thousand men will search for his body.’ It was plain that the deaths at the kraal would not be seen as an obscure skirmish. I was told later that the Prince’s body bore seventeen spear wounds. No one troubled to count the wounds on the bodies of our guide, or Trooper Rogers, or Trooper Abel.

It seems very possible that I will not survive this fever: I have attended the funerals of others with similar symptoms. My passing will not be mourned by my fellow-officers. When I first returned to the regiment, after the court-martial verdict was over-turned, a sarcastic Captain Llewellyn gave me a translation of the ancient Book of Aneirin, telling of how a small band of heroic Welsh horsemen rode out against the great invading Saxon horde, and charged and perished at the battle of Catraeth. I returned the translation with the comment that it may be great literature, but it was poor strategy. That was three years ago and I have found that such verbal jousts soon lost their savour. To be condemned but impenitent, disgraced but innocent, are not states that most men endure indefinitely: my life has become a burden to me. Let my stone bear this memorial: Here Lies An Unlucky Friend.

Sir Francis Bacon’s Belated Vindication

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Feb 7th 2021)

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Lord Chancellor to James I, was a pioneer of experimental science. Yet his report of one of his most famous experiments, showing that boiling water freezes faster than cold water, was scoffed at by fellow scientists for three hundred-odd years. Bacon’s experiment was unwittingly repeated by Erasto Mpemba, a Tanzanian high school student in 1963. Publication of the ‘Mpemba Effect’ led to further controlled experiments replicating Bacon’s finding.

Sadly, I can’t wait three-hundred years for Margaret to recognise the scientific fact that twigs and small branches won’t decompose any time soon in the garden composter.