Anton Chekhov and the Sakhalin Penal Colony

Michael Bloor

(first published in Hektoen International, March 3rd 2015)

In the nineteenth century the Czarist Government wanted to create an Arctic Australia by establishing a penal colony on Sakhalin Island, off the eastern coast of Siberia some five thousand miles from European Russia. There, convicts who had served out their sentences would be obliged to stay as settlers, albeit in a very different new home from that found in Australia’s Botany Bay. In 1890, to the amazement of his family and friends, Dr. Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) resolved to travel to the island to conduct what nowadays would be called a community medicine research project, for a MD thesis at the University of Moscow.

His motivation remains obscure. Middle-class Russians of Chekhov’s generation had an honourable tradition of civic responsibility, and the success of his plays and short stories had already earned him enough money to support his family and finance his journey. But Chekhov was already ill from tuberculosis and the ten-week journey to Sakhalin would be very arduous (there was as yet no Trans-Siberian Railway). The climate of the island was hardly salubrious; and it was said that Sakhalin had no climate, just bad weather. The survey work he undertook entailed travel to remote settlements and sometimes staying in very primitive accommodation. Sakhalin is an enigmatic episode in an enigmatic life.

The account he wrote of Sakhalin, published as a book because the censor banned its serialisation in a journal (Chekhov, 2013 [1895]), is quite unlike any of his other writings. In its barest outline, it is a community survey. Within three months he completed over ten thousand individual data cards (still extant in Moscow’s Lenin Library) on the convicts and exiled settlers whom he had interviewed, he transcribed and aggregated all the parish death records, visited all the island prisons, went underground into the coal-mine worked by four hundred prisoners, visited all the island medical facilities, worked briefly in the outpatient clinic, and gathered what anthropological information he could on the Gilyaks and the Aino—the remnant native populations of the island.

But his Sakhalin Island study is much more than a pioneer community medicine study. Chekhov’s masterly plays are performed more often than any other dramatist except Shakespeare; and his short stories—many of them on medical themes—have been translated and admired across the globe. The Sakhalin study is the work of a great writer who consciously chose to be a social scientist and investigative journalist—a writer whose gifts of description and empathetic understanding shine through the journalism and the science.

His descriptions of living conditions on the island have a stark elegance, as when he writes about the bugs and cockroaches in one house: “the walls and ceilings seemed to be covered in funeral crape, moving as if in a wind.” He had a dramatist’s ear for dialogue:

Why are your dog and your cockerel tied up?’ I would ask a householder.Here on Sakhalin everything’s chained up,’ he’d reply, ‘It’s that sort of place.’

His sardonic observations convey the life of the penal colony more pointedly than his statistics: one of the new settlements was named after a prisoner governor who had been assassinated by a prisoner because of his cruelty—Chekhov merely observed that the prisoner’s fellow-convicts managed to collect sixty roubles in small change as a thank-you gift to his murderer.

He was coruscating in his description of the penal medical services—the prison dispensary with no medicines, wounds bound with dirty rags, mentally ill patients housed along with syphilitic patients, the outpatient clinic in which he practiced with “no washbasin, no balls of cotton wool, no decent scissors, […] not even water of sufficient quantity,” and scalpels too blunt to lance a patient’s boil. “The local hospital system has fallen behind civilization by at least two hundred years.” But he also writes with great sensitivity and understanding of human suffering, for example when mentioning a convict who was formerly a priest:

I do not know why he had been sent to Sakhalin, and I did not ask him about it either; when a man who, not so very long ago, was called ‘Father’ and ‘the Reverend Gentleman,’ and whose hand was kissed by everyone, is standing to attention in front of you dressed in a pitiful threadbare coat, it’s not his offence you think about.”

As the critic and fellow short story writer V S Pritchett observed, such silences and reticences were characteristic of both Chekhov’s literary style and his personality: a gregarious man who was entirely self-sufficient.

These literary touches were evidently unappreciated by the examiners of his MD thesis; and he failed. But there was more than sufficient factual detail in Chekhov’s study to rouse the public conscience. He documented the overcrowding and the insanitary conditions of the various island prisons. Prisoner accommodation would comprise large common halls, with a long plank sleeping platform down the middle of the hall, where the prisoners slept cheek by jowl, the healthy beside the infected. No wonder that when Chekhov compiled mortality tables for the island he found that tuberculosis was “the most common and most dangerous element”—a finding that must have affected him deeply as a fellow-sufferer. The system of communal halls (with seventy to a hundred and seventy convicts per hall) meant that it was impossible to keep the cells clean and tidy, so they were covered in filth. Bugs and lice were everywhere. The latrines were poor, and in the Kosov prison there were no latrines at all, the prisoners being let out in batches to relieve themselves in the street.

He documented the abuses of the administration: the co-option of prisoners by officials to act as unpaid servants and of women prisoners as paramours. Chekhov, himself the grandson of a serf, described this as “serfdom.” The coal mine where many prisoners were set to work was owned by a private company contracted to pay the government for the convicts’ labour, but Chekhov discovered that no payments were ever made. Punishments were severe. In one prison, the most hardened criminals were kept chained to wheelbarrows. Chekhov, who never forgave or forgot the savage beatings of his own childhood, steeled himself to witness the punishment of a failed escapee, but could not stomach the sight of the full ninety lashes that were administered.

The administration of the settlements of the ex-convicts was also found wanting. Many of the chosen sites for settlement were unsuitable for cultivation because of poor soil or vulnerability to flooding. Too many settlers were sent to the settlements, resulting in demoralising overcrowding and epidemics. Basic sanitary precautions were not followed and settlers got their water from ditches. The children of both settlers and of convicts (families were allowed to accompany prisoners transported to the island) were a particular concern of Chekhov’s, as they were neglected by the administration. On his return to Europe, Chekhov organised the dispatch of thousands of books to the Sakhalin schools.

Chekhov’s book on Sakhalin was published in 1895 and immediately generated great public interest and newspaper comment. A government commission was dispatched to Sakhalin to investigate matters the following year. Any resulting ameliorations on the island would however have been short-lived. Chekhov died at the age of forty-four in 1904, a year before Japan seized the southern part of Sakhalin in the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese were soon importing tens of thousands of Koreans as forced labourers in Sakhalin’s coal mines, and somewhat later, across mainland Siberia and the northern wastes, Stalin created the gulags—a regime of penal colonies that made Chekhov’s Sakhalin look like a summer camp. Elsewhere, in 1895 (the same year as the publication of Chekhov’s book), Captain Dreyfus was convicted on a trumped-up charge of spying and sent to the Devil’s Island penal colony, which the French Government did not finally close this until 1953.

The Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell wrote that “an evil once recognised is halfway to its solution,” but she lived in a more optimistic age. Nevertheless, Chekhov’s only work of non-fiction is much more than an interesting early community medicine survey: it is a quiet, determined, and skilfully reported testimony to the need of human decency. Chekhov tried to be objective, but he never claimed to be detached.


  1. Chekhov, Anton (2013 [1895]) Sakhalin Island, Harmondsworth: Penguin.



(First published in Dodging the Rain, December 26, 2018)

Grandad moved in with us when I was seven, it must’ve been about 1958: Grandma Probert had died and his back injury made it difficult to look after himself. He and I used to hang out together when my mum was busy with my younger brother and sister. Grandad and Grandma were born and raised in the Gwendraeth Valley in South Wales. He’d been a miner – the Gwendraeth pits produced high-quality anthracite – but soon after his marriage he was injured in a fall. He had slipped and fallen badly on a slag heap, scavenging for coal during the 1926 General Strike. He then had to look for lighter work and eventually he and Grandma moved to Derby when he got a job in the Co-op Bakery (‘Our Product – The Peak Loaf’).

We were aware that his back often gave him pain, but he didn’t complain. Indeed, he once explained to me that he reckoned that his back injury had saved his life: “See young ’un, If I’d ’a carried on working down the pit, I probably wouldn’t ’a lasted very long – the pneumo would ’a got me, like it got nearly all my mates. That anthracite dust was a killer. In 1946, just after the war, they made pneumoconiosis an official industrial disease. But it was too late then for most of the boys in the Gwendraeth: their lungs was already shot. See, between the wars, the mine owners brought in mechanical cutters and mechanical conveyors. As soon as they came in, the dust levels in the pits rocketed up. The pneumo was bad everywhere in South Wales, but it was worst of all among the anthracite miners. See, those tiny bits of anthracite dust, they’re particularly hard – they cuts the insides of your lungs to ribbons.”

But Grandad’s most memorable story about his back, often told, was that of his paralysis and miraculous recovery. The first time I heard it was an afternoon in Trent Street Working Men’s Club. He’d settled me on a high stool at the bar with a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop. Him and Arthur Morton and a bloke called Cyril were playing dominos and discussing domestic furnishings, Cyril having just bought a new three-piece suite. Cyril had been enthusing about it at some length – the best damn’ thing he’d ever bought – when Grandad said suddenly:

“Now boys, did I ever tell you about when I was paralysed?”

“That would be your back injury, Evan?”

“I did have a back injury, it’s true, Arthur. But I was always able to get about. Always able to get about, that is, until one particular morning about twenty years ago… The alarm went off, as usual, at four o’clock to get me to the early shift at the bakery. Half sleep still, I tried to roll out of bed… And, damn’ me, I couldn’t move! I couldn’t get out of bed!”

“Well, you can imagine, I was in a panic. It had been a cold night, but I started to pour with sweat. I woke Myfanwy beside me. Told her I was paralysed, finished indeed. ‘Are you sure, Evan?’ she said and switched the bedside light on. To demonstrate, I made a great heaving effort. To no avail. No word of a lie, boys, I broke down: I started to sob.”

“There was a pause and then Myfanwy said, ‘Evan, there’s broken spring in the mattress hooked into your pyjama jacket.’”

“Well, boys, a new mattress was the best damn’ thing I ever bought.”

A Deed Undone

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, Issue No. 80, Winter 2018, pp.69-71)

Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ former home, lay down a dusty, winding, Oxfordshire lane. Andrew Mariner, on the strength of a brief spell as a boy scout in his teens, scorned the use of Satnav and had kept missing his way. But suddenly the manor loomed in front of him. Andrew revered Morris, that vigorous old Victorian poet, craftsman, scholar and pioneer-socialist. And Morris, in turn, had revered Kelmscott Manor – a quiet, solid, late-medieval structure of burnt-yellow Cotswolds stone. An invitation to take part in a poetry reading in nearby Oxford last night had provided the occasion for the visit.

The poetry reading had not gone well and Andrew, discomfited, had drunk too much white wine afterwards. Several young people had sneaked out as he read out extracts from his still-unfinished (and, truth-to-tell, aborted) long, narrative poem about Fortinbras’ peaceful reign in Denmark, following the death of Hamlet. Andrew had hoped that the visit to Morris’ house would lift his mood, if not his hang-over. As he turned the old Series-I Land Rover into the car park, he saw that space in the car park was at a premium. The old vehicle was not easily manoeuvrable (Andrew wryly estimated its turning circle to be a quarter of a mile), and he was glad that Felicity had decided to head back to her publishing job in London, rather than join him: she hated the Land Rover and was waging a subtle propaganda war in favour of Andrew buying a new car. When he eventually stepped out of the carpark he was sweating freely and feeling a little faint.

He stopped for a moment, steadying himself by resting one hand against the gable wall of the old house: ‘Sorry, John, got to rest up for a moment.’ Since his elder brother, John Mariner, had died suddenly nine months previously, Andrew had found himself talking to John in quiet moments – trundling along the motorway, or staring into the flaming hearth at the cottage in the evenings. John, a bachelor, had left Andrew a substantial sum of money, transforming him from a penurious poet into, in Andrew’s words, ‘a comfortable old fart’. But Andrew would have preferred John’s company to John’s money.

‘OK now, John. First things first: got to empty the bladder.’

The Gents was in a converted outhouse. At the urinal, he began to feel dizzy again. He lurched over to the wash-hand-basin to splash his face, but leaning over the basin made him worse: bright, coloured lights; the sound of the splashing taps distorted and resonant… He wheeled away to the door and the fresh air, and collapsed on the threshold.

Half a minute later, a pleasant, middle-aged woman was helping him to his feet and across the courtyard to another converted outhouse, now a gift shop.

‘It’s alright,’ giving his arm a welcoming squeeze, ‘I’m Dorothy, the first-aider. Come and have a wee sit down in the shop.’ Andrew noticed the Scots accent.

Behind the shop counter was a rush-bottomed wooden chair. Andrew wanted to say that Morris would have approved of the chair, but saying the words seemed effortful and the words themselves rather affected. He slumped in the chair and Dorothy knelt in front of him, staring into his face. She had large brown eyes.

‘You’re a’ wet.’

‘Been splashing my face,’ Andrew muttered.

‘Not to mention your shirt and your nice linen jacket.’ Dorothy smiled and Andrew smiled too.

‘Maybe overdid it a bit.’

‘Overdid it?? I’ve seen drier jackets on my dad’s boat after a Force-10 gale.’ She started to peel off his jacket.

‘Your father’s a fisherman?’

Was a fisherman. He sold the boat in the Eighties when the herring disappeared.’ She was putting her hand to his forehead and squinting into his eyes. ‘Why d’you think you keeled over? You’re not running a temperature. Never mind. You stay anchored to that chair for a minute and I’ll get you some hot, sweet tea from the café next door.’

A little later he was sipping hot tea and discussing Morris. He warmed to Dorothy’s brisk manner and friendly interest. He found himself telling her that it was Morris’ poetry that was his own chief enthusiasm.

‘Aye? Well, you’ll know the poem about resting that’s embroidered over his bed in the house here?’

He smiled and nodded. They chorused the closing lines, with Dorothy tapping out the beat on his knee with her forefinger.

‘So rest in that chair a while-y, I’ll just be helping Jean over there to serve a few customers.’

He rested and watched Dorothy: ‘Nothing more enjoyable than watching other people working, eh John? Though she seems to enjoy the work itself well enough. Women always seem to be more deft than men, but that Dorothy’s more deft than most. More vivid, almost. I know what you’re thinking: she’s certainly a damn sight more vivid than Felicity. OK, agreed. But being vivid isn’t Felicity’s thing. Felicity specialises in being languorous, which is quite attractive in its way… at first.’

A tweedy lady addressed him: ‘Excuse me: do you have six mugs in this willow pattern? There’s only a couple on display.’ Dorothy materialised at his side and pointed the tweedy customer to some boxed sets of mugs.

‘Sorry, I’m in the way a bit here. Feeling better now – maybe I’ll do what I came to do and look around the Manor House.’

Dorothy briefly laid a hand on his chest: ‘Well, your shirt’s drying quickly in this heat. Shall I hang onto the jacket til you’ve finished your tour?’

‘Would you mind… Dorothy? What time does the shop close? 5.00, same as the house? Can I reimburse you for the cup of tea?’

‘I didn’t pay for it – medical emergency’. Her eyes shone: ‘Well, you certainly look better – the colour’s back in your face. What would William Morris have advised?’

Andrew thought: ‘You know how he loved those old Icelandic sagas: the stoicism of the heroes struggling with Cruel Fate?’

‘Indeed. So, if you’re feeling suitably heroic, go forth and struggle. As the Great Man put it, Do the deed and abide it.’

With this ringing endorsement, Andrew strode out of the shop and into the lovely old house. Eventually, he found himself in the dormer attic, with its massive, bare roof-timbers. The Morrises had used it as a children’s playroom, but Morris himself had described its original purpose as a sleeping chamber for the manor’s ploughman and the herd boy – a relic of the days before the wealthy cut themselves off from intimacy with the poor. He mused about the creeping apartheid segregating the rich and the poor. His thoughts turned back to his own cottage in the Welsh borders: the tiny study (formerly the larder) where he’d poured onto paper those early love poems; the fifty yards of drystone wall he’d re-built around the garden, stone-by-stone; drunken Haydn Probert in the cottage next door trying and failing, uproariously, to make cider without a cider press; old Mrs Lewis, next-door-but-one, with her cats.

And now, 2 Quarry Cottages had a ‘For Sale’ sign beside it. Because Felicity had persuaded him that a house in the Surrey Hills was ‘far more suitable’. So handy for his poetry readings; the room designated for his study had wisteria growing about the window; the lawns would be perfect for literary parties; Robin and Annabel lived just round the corner; and the bedrooms… He remembered how she’d smiled and twirled her skirts in the master bedroom – ‘No more rumpty-pumpy on damp sheets, Sweetie-Pie.’

‘What an old goat I’ve been, John. And what a price I’ve paid. Paid with your money, John. If only my study-to-be might not be.’

He checked the time (five o’clock) and headed back down the stairs. He saw Dorothy standing in the sunlit courtyard with his jacket under her arm.

‘Done the deed?’ she smiled.

‘Half-done it, I think…’

She spoke quickly: ‘The jacket’s pretty dry now. You’ll need to iron it though.’ There was a pause. He took the jacket – a poet lost for words. She smiled again, turned and walked quickly over to a white-haired woman in the middle distance.

Andrew heard Dorothy say: ‘Can you drop me at the late-night chemist’s, Mary?’ And then they were gone.

Andrew’s Land Rover was the second-to-last car in the carpark. He knew he would be too ashamed to talk to John on the drive home.



(first published 17th December 2018 in Idle Ink)

“I don’t care who’s requested it. You’re not playing a song called, “Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain…” err…”

I try to be helpful: “It’s “Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain, a Life of Toil, and Inevitable Death”, boss.”

“Right. You’re NOT playing, on the public airwaves, a song called “Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain, a Life of Toil, and Inevitable Death”, by a group called Dog’s Breath and the Puppypoopers.”

“It’s not too bad, boss. Just your standard Heavy Metal…”

I was losing the argument. It was our weekly production meeting for Holiday Island Discs (named thus for copyright reasons) at Radio Sherwood, ‘the premier East Midlands commercial radio station.’ Anselm Petty, the producer, ran the meetings like King Herod running a crèche. A bit painful for me, as the whole format of the programme had been my idea.

Two years ago, I’d pitched a programme idea based on the self-evident truth that the only good reason why you’d ever want to be famous would be to get on Desert Island Discs (me – I not only constantly revise my choice of eight discs, I also work on and amend my gently humorous, self-deprecating introductions to each of my choices). My idea was that each week, we’d play a series of records selected by one of the patients at the local Macmillan Hospice: their chance to grab some limelight before they left the stage, and to look back on their lives and give thanks. I’d pre-record and edit my interviews with those patients who were well enough to speak at length. With other patients, I’d introduce the records myself, basing the introductions on interviews with the patient and the relatives. We always ended the programme with an appeal for funds for the hospice and, as a result, we’d raised forty eight thousand pounds in the last year.

When I’d first made the programme pitch, Deidre of the Sorrows (aka the station manager) said she was willing to trial it for three months, but she was damned if she’d allow anymore plays on the station of Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ So Anselm, the producer, was given a veto over the patients’ choices.

In my expert opinion, old Betty Boulton’s choices were just right for the programme (her picks even over-lapped with a couple of mine – “The Laughing Policeman” and The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”). They ranged perfectly over time and genres, and her introductions to each choice were delightful. The trouble lay with disc number seven, the demo disk made by her goth grandson and his mates. Anselm was appalled. It was true that some of the lyrics were rather colourful (though I had admire the rhyming of ‘anarchic’ and ‘free market’), but I reasoned that the section of the radio audience that might otherwise have taken offence wouldn’t actually be able to make out the lyrics over the cacophony of the backing.

I reasoned in vain, and ended up heading back to the hospice to ask Betty to choose a different seventh disc. Her son, Andy the digger driver (whom I’d met last time), was also visiting.

Betty favoured me with a big smile when I walked in: “Hello, dear, back again? I hope they’re going to bring you a cup of tea. You’ll find some fig rolls in that bedside cabinet – I remember you said they were your favourite. Are you here about something to do with the radio programme?”

“I’m afraid I am, Betty. Err… there’s a bit of a problem about Dog’s Breath’s demo. Um. We were wondering if you’d like to choose a replacement?”

Betty is the sweetest old soul you could wish to meet. But, to my surprise (and supported by Andy), she dug her heels in: “Oh I’m sorry, dear, but I couldn’t do that. You see, I’ve already told Dog’s Breath and the rest of the boys that their record would be played on the radio. I couldn’t let them down – they’d be so disappointed. And they’re such nice boys.” It seemed that the only reason she’d wanted to appear on the programme was to plug the Dog’s Breath record. And, if Dog’s Breath was going to be censored, she would be withdrawing in protest.

Andy backed her up: “Dead right, Mum. Radio Sherwood’s Holiday Island Discs could be The Big Breakthrough for Dog’s Breath. And what could be more appropriate for a programme from the hospice than a song about inevitable death?”

Neither Betty nor I could quite follow Andy that far, but he was too fired up to notice: “Who’s doing this censoring anyway? Surely, it’s your show?” (this last was addressed to me).

“It’s not really my show, Andy. I just present it. It’s the producer, Anselm Petty, who has the final say about the content.”

“Humpff! I know that creep. He’s moved in down Mickleover Lane. He’s just paid for half an acre of brick paving, where old Mrs Epps used to have her rose garden.”

Betty looked horrified: “No! Really! Jean Epps would be terribly upset. She looked after those roses like they were her children…” And so the conversation moved on.

I left soon after that, but I hung around in the hospice car park til Andy came out. I had a proposition for him. As I explained, his eyes first glinted and then he laughed out loud. “I’ll do it”, he said.

When I got back to the station, I went into Anselm’s office with the suggestion that we could perhaps still run the programme with seven discs instead of eight. I didn’t think Betty would agree to that, and in all probability, neither would Anselm. But my premise was that we should consider the possibility, because the other seven were absolutely perfect…

Number one, of course, was “The Laughing Policeman”, fondly remembered by Betty from the old Light Programme and “Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites.” Did Uncle Mac really say, live on the air: “That should keep the little bastards quiet for a couple of minutes, I’m off for a cup of tea”?

Number two was Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues”. The perfect pop song – Eddie, Eddie, you died too soon.

Number three was “The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals. When Bob Dylan heard it, he switched to electric guitar. ’Nuff said.

Number four, The Watersons’ “The Derby Ram”. A bit dreary, but never neglect the local angle, as in “Derby man drowned at sea: Titanic sinks.”

Number five, Beethoven’s Pastoral. Keep the middle-brows happy – it’s only for ninety seconds.

Number six, The Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man”. Betty must’ve been a cool chick in the Seventies. And, a nice controversial touch here, she chose the live version with Dickie Betts on lead guitar, instead of the studio version with Duane Allman (obit.).

Number seven, pass…

Number eight, for a real Church ending, a spot of Thomas Tallis’s choral masterpiece, “Spemin Alium”. Important to end on an uplifting note.

Just as Anselm was growling, “Why, why, WHY are you wasting my time with this?” his mobile rang. Surprised, he picked it up. It was his partner, Gary. Gary was yelling so loud, I could hear every word. Apparently, some mad bastard with a JCB was outside their house threatening to dig up their new brick paving and drop it all through the picture window, unless Anselm agreed to reinstate Dog’s Breath and the Puppypoopers.

I judged it better to withdraw.

Note on the Fridge Door

By Michael Bloor

(first published, DECEMBER 5, 2018, in THE DRABBLE)

In 1507, Father John Damian (aka Giovanni Damiano de Falcucci), alchemist to James IV of Scotland, announced that he had discovered the secret of flight. Festooned in hen feathers, he stood on the battlements of James’ Royal Castle on Stirling Rock, declared that he was bound for France, and launched himself into space.

He fell straight into the castle midden, breaking his thigh bone. A truly spectacular miscalculation, but the king forgave him.

So could you maybe follow Good King James’ example, and forgive my failure to stop before I’d hit the back-wall of the garage?

The Night I Ordered the Smoked Eel

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Nov 14, 2018)

It’s late, late at night and I’m sprawled on the couch watching a DVD of Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers.’

Somebody says, in a low drawl, ‘Must you keep picking your nose?’

I’m immediately alert: there’s no-one else in the room – there’s just me and Mungo the cat, either end of the couch. Nothing happens for a very long five seconds, then…

‘I said, must you keep picking your nose – it’s utterly disgusting.’

I stare at the cat. Mungo stares back, in that disconcerting, direct way that cats look at you: ‘Of course it’s me, you prat. Never heard of a talking cat?’

In the course of the evening, I’d drunk enough whisky to go with the flow: ‘Er, well, there’s that Saki short story about a talking cat called “Tobermory”…’

Mungo twitches his tail. I recall too late that poor Tobermory came to a sticky end. Mungo jumps off the couch, ‘OK, Sunshine. Just keep your digit away from your nasal cavities from now on, and we’ll say this conversation ever happened.’

‘Hang on, Mungo. Sorry about the Tobermory reference: I was in shock – never met a talking cat before.’

He gave his tail a final, lazy twist. ‘Bollocks. I talk to you all the time – you just never listen.’

I stare back. ‘All the time? So… when was the last time?’

‘Earlier this evening, when you were sat staring at a blank laptop screen.’

‘Don’t remind me – Must’ve sat there for over an hour. Dismissed one half-baked idea for a short story. Then totally failed to come up with another.’

‘Uh-huh. Hunched over your laptop, like a constipated tortoise.’

‘OK, OK, though I might borrow your “constipated tortoise” analogy. Err, what was it that you said to me back then, when I was staring at the laptop?’

Mungo starts licking his right-hand back paw. ‘Just said [slurp] I’ve an idea for a story, if you want one [slurp]…’

There’s a long pause. No pun intended.

‘So what was the idea?’

‘You really want [slurp] to know?’


‘OK. How about some of that “Tuna Surprise”?’

A few minutes later, in the kitchen: ‘So Mungo, the story idea?’

‘Mmm. Yeah. Hope you’re gonna buy some more of that “Tuna Surprise,” by the way. Right then: the story. You remember that Bergman DVD that you were watching before Christmas?’

‘Ingrid Bergman??’

‘No, you dope, Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director. You were watching Bergman’s “The Face.”’

‘Oh yeah. Gotcha: “The Face.”’

‘Well, dumbnuts, that’s a great plot. The MC can work miracles. But nineteenth century Sweden has got no use for a saint or a messiah – he finds he’s disturbing, unpopular. So, instead, he makes a hand-to-mouth living as a travelling magician. Occasionally, he deliberately messes up a trick, so there’s less danger that the audience are disturbed by the thought that they might be witnessing a miracle. You’ll recall that there’s more to it, but you get my drift.’

‘Hmm, I get your drift, Mungo. It’s a great plot. But if it’s already been done…’

Mungo twitches his tail and turns away. I hastily apologise, ‘Oops, sorry. A bit slow on the uptake after that whisky. Gotcha now: maybe make a few alterations…’

‘Exactly. Update it to the twenty-first century; switch it from a travelling magician to, say, a travelling psychic. That sort of thing. After all, somebody pointed out that there are only seven basic plots in the whole world, so a bit of recycling’s unavoidable.’

I sit quietly for a moment, absorbing this scintillating guidance. ‘Thanks pal, want another dish of tuna?’

Mungo heads for the catflap, ‘The tuna’s finished. No thanks necessary. Just make sure you buy some more of that tuna tomorrow. Either that or some smoked eel – I understand that you can order that online.’

Hereford Cathedral Library

Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk, September 2018)

The greatest treasure in the ancient library is the seven hundred year-old Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map in existence. The Earth is shown as a flat disk with Jerusalem at the dead centre; Britain is perched on the extreme periphery, as is the Garden of Eden. Hereford is duly marked.

Prebend Richard, the cartographer, had used gold and blue watercolours and black and red inks. Touchingly, the Red Sea is coloured red. Since it was called the Red Sea, Richard believed the sea was red. He took it to be the literal truth. An honest mistake, just like mine when you told me you loved me too.

Last Game

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue12, September 2018)

There was a much-screened comedy sketch on British TV of a casting director for a ‘Tarzan’ film interviewing a hopping, one-legged applicant (played by Dudley Moore) for the lead part. The director says something like: ‘Your left leg would be great for the part. I’ve got nothing against your left leg. The trouble is, neither have you…’

That rather sums up my football skill-set: my right leg was effectively missing – I was hopelessly left-footed. I played for the Youth Club team on Saturday mornings. I sort-of-enjoyed it but, like a lot of stuff you do when you’re a child, I mainly turned up each week out of habit. Still, I might’ve stuck at it longer, if it hadn’t been for a Derbyshire Junior Cup-Tie we played. That game finished me.

We were drawn at home to a team from one of the mining villages. I’ll call ‘em ‘Bradgate Main’, just in case their Centre Half became a Queens Counsel when he left school. Our captain, Tony Mellors (centre-forward), was strutting about and holding forth, when he stopped in mid-sentence. We all turned to see what he was staring at: it was the Bradgate Main team – they’d arrived in a supporters’ bus! A double-decker. With scarves hanging out the windows! Unbelievable. Piggy Sowter (our left back) choked on his banana sandwich.

Their supporters, numbering at least a couple of dozen, started up a chant when Bradgate Main took to the field. A chant – unheard of! As they took up their positions for the kick-off, Bill Browning (inside left) muttered to me: ‘Bloody ‘ell. Look at the size of ‘em. They gotta be a couple of years older than us.’ Several of them looked to be fully grown. The centre half, in particular, must’ve been six foot, and hefty with it. He had one of those unintended, adolescent, whispy moustaches.

Five minutes in, Mellors and their centre half raced each other for a loose ball. There was a collision and Mellors stayed on the ground holding his ankle. The centre half trotted away from the resultant free kick with a secret smile. No substitutes back in 1961. Roy, the youth leader, examined Mellors’ ankle and switched him to the left wing – the traditional position for crippled passengers. Ordinarily, the switch would have been a source of quiet satisfaction to me. But not on this occasion. As I took Mellors’ place in the centre of the pitch, to await the free kick, the centre half towered over me. I felt his dog’s breath on my face as he whispered: ‘Burial or cremation, shit-face?’ Fortunately, the ball came nowhere near us. For the next five minutes, I wasn’t taking up positions so much as keeping out of the way.

Needless to say, the game was being played very largely in our half of the field. But although out-classed, we did have one secret weapon: our goalie, Pete Boulton, was a tremendous kicker of a dead ball. In those days, few thirteen year-olds, would have been able to lift that heavy leather ball past the halfway line. But Pete could do it with ease.

Eventually, we were awarded a goal kick. Pete raised both arms: his signal that he was going to slam it straight down the middle. Bradgate Main were unprepared. The goal kick soared over the halfway line. There were just me and Dog’s Breath underneath the ball, about twenty yards in. Dog’s Breath was a head taller than me: there was no chance of me being able to out-jump him. But I remembered a trick I’d seen Bill Curry, Derby’s centre forward, play on the colossus, Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s Scottish International Centre Half. As the ball plummeted down towards us, I sensed when Dog’s Breath was about to jump and backed into him. I caught him off-balance and he stumbled backward. I caught the ball on my foot (my left foot, of course) and flicked it first time over mine and Dog’s Breath’s left shoulder. I pivoted round him like he was a stone post, collected the loose ball and raced towards the goal, Dog’s Breath floundering in the middle distance.

The Bradgate goalie, startled out of his reverie, ran out to meet me. I shaped up to shoot and the goalie spread himself to make the save. But, instead of shooting, I took the ball round the goalie, spread-eagled on the ground, and simply side-footed it into the net (with my left foot). It was a sublime moment.

You know that phrase: the crowd went wild? Well, the Bradgate supporters gave that phrase a new twist: they were acting like a Wild West lynching-mob. As I trotted modestly back to the centre circle for the re-start, Dog’s Breath snarled: ‘I’m gonna rip your throat out.’

As a child, I was always sensitive to the moods of others. Suspecting that I might have become rather unpopular with the opposition, I thought it best to move out towards the left wing for a spell. Day-dreaming of succeeding Bill Curry in the Derby County attack, I was awakened from my reverie by a shout from Bill Browning: a loose ball was bouncing towards me and Bill was racing up-field looking for my pass. As I controlled the ball, I caught a glimpse of a Bradgate player bearing down on me. So I turned my back on him, shielding the ball while I measured the pass up to Bill.

Dog’s Breath slammed into my back like a runaway train. I was projected into the crowd of Bradgate supporters on the touchline. The force of the impact knocked all the breath out of me. I lay there, face-down on the muddy ground, unmoving, traumatised, arms out-stretched like a dead starfish. Then, in the meleé of crowding legs, someone stood hard on my hand.

It was a life-changing moment: by the time I’d struggled back upright, I’d decided to get a Saturday job.

A Misapprehension

By Michael Bloor

(first published in THE DRABBLE, Sept 7th 2018)

Beyond the barren rubble of an antique lava-flow, a herd of Icelandic ponies graze on rough pasturage among rashes and dwarf birch. A stallion sniffs the breeze; mares and foals snuffle among the grass and herbs. The stirring and shifting of their manes and tails seem all of a piece with the jagged mountain silhouettes on the horizon and the jumbled lava – a wild, young, restless country. I turn to Guðmundur: ‘Those horses … they’re almost an emblem of freedom.’

Guðmundur paused, smiled and shook his head: ‘My grandfather made his living selling them to work down the Scottish mines.’

The Long Watches of the Night

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk Fiction, 25 Aug 2018)

The kirk was packed. Of course, there were the extended family and her university colleagues. But there were also many old friends from her student days and more friends and neighbours from the Ayrshire mining village where she’d been born and raised. At the meal afterwards, I found myself talking, first to her optician and then to her postman. As the minister — another old friend — said in her address, it seemed as if everyone she met had been touched by her warmth, her empathy, and her gentle humour.

Alan, Mary’s husband, had asked me to say a few words about her university career. I didn’t feel I could refuse. I’ve got up on my hind legs and said my piece in dozens of lecture theatres and conference halls over the years, but that speech was very tricky. Of course, it was easy enough to talk about her early achievements. There was the doctorate on the miners’ struggle to make pneumoconiosis officially designated as an industrial disease, eligible for compensation. And then there was her brilliant monograph on Abe Moffat, the great Scottish miners’ leader.

Where I found myself in difficulty was in describing her time as Head of the History Department, as this touched more on her personal qualities: her seeming ability to find a solution to every problem at a time of simultaneous budget cuts and mushrooming student numbers; her kindness to troubled students; and her capacity to successfully and craftily manage university staff, a task sometimes likened to herding cats. So caring and temperate were her managerial performances that one misogynist senior lecturer — now deceased — was heard to describe her as “a Mother Teresa” (and this from a man who had spoken of marriage as “a lifetime of lifting and replacing the toilet seat”).

That last aside had raised a few titters: nothing tickles the British Public more than lavatory humour. So I risked one of her jokes: “I’m all for combatting climate change and saving the planet, but the idea of recycled toilet paper is really disgusting.” That got a chuckle that rolled into a roar.

The laughter triggered the tears, tears of sorrow. Mary’s sister in the front row was crying so loudly that I’m sure she could be heard right at the back. Horrified, I felt my own tears stinging my eyes, but I managed to hold it together, draw my piece to a close and step down into the body of the kirk.

The rest of the service and the following meal passed somehow. People were kind about my address, but I just longed to get out the door …

I will always be grateful that, just a fortnight before her death, my dear Mary had promised that I would always be her love, though we could never be together. It was a relief to pull out of the carpark into the November dusk: a fugitive lover can never be mourned in public, only in the long watches of the night.