Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Miss Baumgarten's Trolls

Here's a piece from a new Christmas story I've written recently. It goes back in time to 1978 and a certain junior school in a town in the North East of England. It's about an amazing teacher who decides to stage a very unusual production for the Christmas concert. (You can read the whole story on my Patreon page -  )

Miss Baumgarten’s Trolls

‘Look, Class 6, ’ she said. ‘You have to stand out, you know? You have to do something quite different. And you know what all the others will be doing, don’t you? The usual Christmas rubbish. Dopey Nativities and the same old boring fairy tales.’

We were shocked by this. We’d never heard a teacher talk like this before. Dopey Nativities..?! Christmas rubbish?

Miss Baumgarten always said things the other teachers never did.

Right now – last thing on a November afternoon when it was purple and yellow and stormy outside – she was sitting on Mrs Hellist’s desk and strumming her twelve string guitar. The noise was huge and warm as she tuned up.

We were transfixed by Miss Baumgarten.

Everything she did was surprising and just a bit wrong.

Also, she looked like Barbra Streisand, had a perm, wore a poncho, and carried this guitar everywhere she went.

‘Before we sing the Joni Mitchell song again, I want to sound you guys out about an idea I’ve had for this class’s Christmas show this year…’

We were hanging on her every word. It had been like that for two weeks now, since she had started standing in for our regular teacher. Mrs Hellist’s lessons were usually so predictable and dull. She liked to fill up the board with stuff she was copying out of a book, and we had to race to keep up with her. The best scholars and writers were those who could write as much and as fast as she could. She’d finish lessons looking red in the face and worn out. Perhaps that was why she was taking so many weeks off school?

Lessons with Miss Baumgarten were quite different. We never knew what was coming next.

She strummed her guitar and la-la-la’ed for a while and thought deeply and then she started explaining her great idea to us. And how we were going to be doing an interpretation of a play by a Norwegian called Henrik Ibsen for our holiday spectacular.


No one I knew had ever heard of Henrik Ibsen, and no one thought Miss Baumgarten’s idea sounded very Christmassy.

‘When is it?’ Mam asked, flipping the pages of our kitchen calendar.

‘The last Monday before the holidays.’

She didn’t look keen on coming. Last year she had gone to the concert with Dad, and the year before, but he wasn’t around any more, of course. She wasn’t sure it was the kind of thing Brian would be into.

‘I don’t want to face all those questions and looks,’ she sighed, pursing her lips and writing ‘school concert..?’ in pencil on the calendar. ‘All those nosy teachers and other parents and everyone will be looking and judging. They’ll see I’ve got a different man with me.’

I didn’t say anything. As far as the kids in my class were concerned, the news was already out. I had gone through weeks of being elbowed and hissed at. ‘Hey, is that bloke your new dad? That fella with the green Cortina? Is that your dad now? The bloke with the big beard?’

I kept my head down and didn’t say anything and, of course, this made them ask all the more, and laugh about it. ‘What happened to your real dad, then? Did he run away? Did he die or summat? Who’s this fella with the green car?’

Brian had moved in with us at the start of autumn.

It was weird and I wasn’t used to it yet at all, but I wasn’t going to talk about it with anyone at school.

‘Is it going to be worth coming to see?’ Mam asked, ‘This concert thing? You wouldn’t mind if I didn’t come to see you, would you? I’m not going in there by myself. I can’t do that.’

Mam hated going anywhere by herself, especially when there were people there. She could do the shopping down the town precinct by herself, but that was because she knew where she was going and what she wanted and it was all quick and easy. She went every day to get our food for that day, since we didn’t have a fridge (Dad took it.)

‘The thing you were in last year wasn’t worth seeing,’ she laughed. ‘What were you again? Stood at the back?’

‘A sheep,’ I said.

‘You had that paper mask on. You couldn’t even see it was you.’ She laughed, fetching down pans to start the tea. Findus Crispy Pancakes, beans and mash.

‘I made the mask myself,’ I said.

‘You were still just a sheep,’ she said.

‘But it’s not just the plays,’ I pointed out. ‘It’s a whole evening of festivities. There’s a Christmas raffle, and carols and Mr Robertson does a kind of comedy routine and makes everyone laugh…’

‘Oh, god, yes,’ she shuddered, as the pan began to sizzle. ‘Well, you know. I’m not sure. I might not come to this one. We’ll have to see.’


Miss Baumgarten began rehearsals in earnest.

She clapped her hands loudly, and looked very businesslike, standing at the front of the school hall. ‘We must be very serious about this,’ she said. ‘If we’re going to do this, then we have to do it right. And so all your gym classes are going to become rehearsal hours from now until Christmas.’

I felt like cheering. I could have run to the front of the hall and kissed her.

Gym classes with Mrs Hellist were awful.

She’d had us doing forward and backward rolls and I just couldn’t.

She prodded my bum with her platform boot. ‘Come on, you lazy lump. You can do it!’

The whole class was standing round us. They’d got past doing these rolls straight away. They were already onto vaulting over apparatus and climbing up the walls. I was crunched over in the middle of the shiny floor and everyone was looking and I was, like she said, a big fat lump. Her boot prodded at me and she hooted. ‘You have to try harder! You’re making no effort!’

Miss Baumgarten hated gym classes. ‘You’re not lab rats! You’re individuals! That stuff is no good for you! It’s no good just doing things other people tell you to do! You must learn to express yourselves! That’s the most important thing!’

And so, while she was in charge, that winter, gym classes became Music and Movement.

‘You’ll see, Class Six,’ she grinned, dashing to the record player. ‘You’ll see how all this will feed into our Christmas play, and will enrich your performances.’

She put on a record she had brought from home. The needle hissed and the large speakers crackled.

A kind of jazzy music started up.

She clicked her fingers to the beat.

‘Can you hear it? Can you feel it?’

All of Class Six stood there frozen, staring at her. We were in our sandshoes and shorts and T-shirts and didn’t know what was expected of us.

‘Now, you must MOVE!’ she cried, flinging out her arms and swaying on the spot. Her perm bobbed about and her flowery maxi-dress floated out around her. ‘MOOOOVE, Class Six! Express yourselves, children! Dance just how you want to!’

She had her eyes closed as she demonstrated and we stared in amazement.

‘Think of Kate Bush! Think of Mick Jagger! DANCE like them, children! Do whatever comes into your head! Just let your bodies do their thing…!’

Some of the girls were already moving. Some of them did dance stuff in classes after school.

The taller boys – Andy, Chris, Colin – they were pogoing like the Sex Pistols and making each other laugh.

‘That’s it! That’s very good! Do more of that!’ gasped Miss Baumgarten.

She dashed over to the boys and this startled them.

They were expecting to be told off for being silly, but she was full of admiration.

‘I love it! How creative! You’re dancing punk-style to the sounds of Duke Ellington! How fantastic!’

She clapped her hands busily. ‘Look, everyone! See how these boys are interpreting the music? See their spasmodic, jerky movements and their leaping about! You see? Can we all do that? Do we all want to try that..?’

Yes, we did.

She dashed over to the record player and started ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ again, and then we were all jumping up and down like Sid Vicious, even the girls.

It got hot and sticky in the school hall, pretty fast.

Even Miss Baumgarten was leaping up and down and twitching her arms. ‘Everyone! Do it like this! Like this!’

We still weren’t sure whether we were doing it right. Some of us were giggling and stopping to breathe and clutching our sides. Chris went running around the room doing his monkey walk because he was getting carried away. When Miss Baumgarten saw that she cried out again, ‘Oh, how wonderful! How do you do that, Christopher? Oh, let me try…’

And that was when Mr Robertson came walking through the school hall with his pile of signed registers that he was delivering to each of the classes.

He was already frowning at the noise. The jazzy music was bad enough, but what was all that laughing and carrying on? And the noise of thirty kids jumping up and down on his polished floor?

He marched out into the hall and simply stared. He went a bit red and his eyes bulged out. He didn’t look cross, though. He looked flabbergasted.

Miss Baumgarten noticed him, and stopped doing her monkey walk and dashed over to the record player to turn the volume down.

‘Hello, Mr Robertson! Aren’t the children doing brilliantly..?’

‘Erm,’ he said.

‘Carry on, everyone!’ she cried out. ‘Keep expressing yourselves! Keep on dancing!’

‘What is it supposed to be?’ asked our headmaster, looking worried.

‘Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen,’ she told him, grinning sweatily. ‘With music by Grieg. We’ve decided we’re going rather highbrow for our contribution to the end of term spectacular. What do you think..?’


Friday, 15 December 2017

The TV Writer

Here's an excerpt of a story *lightly* based on personal experience of writing for telly back in the 1990s...  the whole, tawdry story can be read on my Patreon page if you subscribe! Here's the link Patreon!

But then Kevin the producer and his script editor Bill called him in for a series of one-to-one meetings.
     Ian left each one feeling bruised and confused.
     Every draft he did of his single episode seemed to get worse and worse, in their eyes.
     ‘Can’t you see?’ Kevin shouted. ‘It’s just shitty! And it’s getting shittier and shittier! And that’s why we’ve called you in, yet again, for an emergency meeting this time. We want to give you every chance to get it right, but that only goes up to a certain point. We’re getting to the stage where my Exec needs to see this and I’m not happy about handing it over in this state. This, what you’ve written, Ian – five times now – is still shit. It’s worse than shit. It’s like the scum on the shit it was five drafts ago.’
     Bill the script editor smiled and shrugged from behind his computer.
     Ian didn’t know what to say. It was like all his life force was draining out of him via the squeaky swivel chair he was sitting on. He hardly dared move or breathe. He saw that he had got everything completely wrong.
     Kevin was going on, ‘We think you’re good. Or, we did do, at the start. But you’ve lost it completely, haven’t you? Look at this. Have you even read it back through? It doesn’t make any sense at all. No one, not one of them, is talking about what they should be talking about. It’s as if you’ve completely ignored the story-lining document and gone off in your own direction. What are all these twats talking about? Frigging nonsense!’
     Ian tried to break in, saying that he was trying to show how distant the characters were from each other by giving them rather stilted chitchat…
     ‘Stilted chitchat?’ Kevin shouted. He was getting a bit shrieky by now. He actually stood up and for a moment Ian thought he was going to punch him. ‘Who wants to listen to stilted frigging chitchat? Is that why we shell out millions of pounds to produce quality, ratings-grabbing, world class telly? Is that what our viewers want to sit down to watch? Is that why they want to vote for us at the frigging BAFTAS and the TV Quick awards? The Stilted Chitchat Show? Are you frigging joking? They want drama. Quality frigging drama. And do you know what that is, Ian?’
     He was looking down at his script. Kevin was right. It was terrible. Ian must have been in a dream. What had he been thinking of? Battering away at Liz’s word processor in her ground floor flat. Staring through the venetian blinds at the geese wobbling by and the cats slinking under the cars. Going over and over the same scenes and crunching down the lines of dialogue till they were as small and as real as he could make them.
     ‘Drama isn’t what you’ve written. Drama is her saying, ‘Look, Mike. I know you don’t love me anymore.’ And him saying, ‘I do, Hannah! I love you more than ever!’ And her going, ‘No, you’re lying!’ And him going, ‘But I do!’ And her saying, ‘I can feel it. Deep down. I know what’s true.’ There! That’s off the top of my head but there’s more real drama in that than the pile of shite you’ve given us. It’s pathos! It’s real life! And it’s eight million bastards sat at home on their settees thinking, ‘Shit! She’s actually saying it! She’s coming out with the truth!’ That’s eight million inarticulate bastards, Ian, and they’re all living dull little lives full of awkward chitchat. You see, they want to hear the twats on telly saying exactly what’s in their heads. They want to hear those twats saying exactly what they mean. They want her to tell him he’s wrong when he lies and tells her he still loves her. We all know he’s talking out of his arse and we want to hear her call him out! That’s drama, Ian. That’s soap. And you haven’t got a clue about it. Everything you’ve turned in for three months has been just frigging awful. You haven’t got a clue about bringing out the subtext. It’s clear you never knew what we were on about at all. And so, you’ve had your last chance, lovey. And you’re out.’
     Before he knew it, Ian was out in the corridor. He caught a glimpse of Bill the script editor giving him a sympathetic look. The door slammed, and he heard even more shouting, a bit muffled.

     Then he was leaving. He was heading back to the lift. He was out of there.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Lord of the Rings - the Fotonovel!

Reminded by Stuart Douglas of this childhood favourite. I loved the feature length cartoon of 'Lord of the Rings' and this FOTONOVEL - which i bought with my pocket money the very first night Newton Aycliffe's Fine Fare Superstore had late night opening - was a wonderful improvement on the brick-thick and over-complicated book club edition of Tolkien on our living room shelves.

This was pure story distilled to its glorious, glossy essence, with just a few snippets of dialogue and wonderfully atmospheric artwork. I still think so much of English Literature could be happily supplanted by feature length cartoons and Fotonovels. 1978 had all the best ideas.

Monday, 11 December 2017

'Podkin One-Ear' by Kieran Larwood

I love a good saga about rabbits or moles or mice: I love it when we are invited into their mythology and their sagas. All those Watership Downs and Duncton Quests and Redwall Abbeys. Kieran Larwood’s projected ‘Five Realms’ series (it’s a series! Hurray!) promises to be a bit different in that it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world. Humans are gone. Huge rabbits have the run of the world. It’s a kind of Planet of the Apes scenario, with bunnyish tendencies.
            It’s a rollicking great ride this first book, with hardly a second wasted, right from the arrival of the old story-telling rabbit in the snow, to the final battle with rescues and magical reversals galore. It’s a lovely mash-up a warmly familiar elements from Richard Adams and Tolkien – but with touches taken from Star Wars, too. All of this brings a pleasingly epic quality to the adventure.
            The thing that elevates it all above more perfunctory by-the-numbers fantasy adventures published in recent years is the characterization. I absolutely believe in everyone we meet here. They’re all archetypes – and recognized as such within the story, but each one is wonderfully vivid. The three young rabbits forced to flee their ruined home at the start – Podkin, Paz and Pook – are immediately recognizable. What happens to the life and home they have known is horrifying, right at the start. What happens to Podkin’s ear when they escape is actually painful for us to read.
Our attention stays absolutely fixed on them as they careen through the wintry wilderness from haunted burrows to witchy hideouts. All the characters they encounter are just as well drawn, too, I think – Mish and Mash the dwarf acrobats, Crom the blind and noble soldier, Brigid the mysterious witch rabbit. And, above all of them, the terrifying figure of Scramashank the Gorm Lord – a rabbit chieftain possessed by some demonic force that manifests itself from under the earth. His zombified hordes are rather like the Borg from Star Trek with their hideous meshing of iron and necrotic flesh.
Who’d have thought the spectre of Borg Bunnies hunting down the cast of Watership Down could ever be so riveting..?
I reckon there’s something special about this series, and I’m glad to catch it at just the right point – with the second volume newly published, meaning I don’t have to wait too long for the next instalment.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

'Christmas on Coronation Street' - by Maggie Sullivan

Back in the Seventies there were three wonderful novels by HV Kershaw adapting key moments and storylines from early episodes of ‘Coronation Street.’ As a kid I would pore over these paperbacks from our living room wall unit (just as I would through titles by James Herbert, Jackie Collins and Catherine Cookson.) There was something, to me, absolutely compelling about being allowed inside the minds and thoughts and the pasts of characters familiar from TV.
For me, it was a bit like listening to family gossip. It was like when my Big Nanna came visiting (usually with her friend, Deaf Olive in tow.) They would sit all afternoon and Glad would reminisce. ‘Do you remember her who was married to whatsit, who lived down by so-and-so, and they were the ones who had all that bother with the you-know-what, well, it’s her who’s died.’
I would listen, completely agog to this kind of gossip. To me it was a wonderful art form: ripe with allusion, metaphor and folk history. These women were the bearers of great dollops of oral history. Glad coming to ours and drawing out these tales was her way of making sure all the stories got passed on, to the next generations.
‘What was that?’ Deaf Olive would shout. ‘Eee, you bugger!’
One of the very precious people from the past who was only available to us now via my Big Nanna’s spoken tales was her husband, my Granda-as-I-never-met, as she called him. Mam’s long-lost, beloved Dad, who’d died of lung disease when she was only nine. A proper gentle man, he always sounded.
Glad told a story of him, not long before he died. It was when ‘Coronation Street’ first came on the telly. She was in the scullery, being busy, and he was sitting in his chair with the telly on. He stared at the screen and he could hardly believe what he was watching. ‘Glad! Glad! Come through! They’re talking like normal people on here! On the telly! They’ve actually got normal people on here!’
She came through, muttering, reluctantly, and peered at the screen. She was always very sceptical about the telly (it was often too rude and nasty for her taste) but she had to admit: ‘Coronation Street’ was more like real life than anything else. It was more like the terraced streets of South Shields she’d grown used to in her adult life.
A few years later, when her husband was dead and she was working all the cleaning jobs she could, her twin girls were full of excitement one Christmas because the star of the Street was coming to town. Elsie Tanner was going to open up the new Binns Department Store on Fowler Street.
Glad gave her daughters permission. She’d be too busy to go and she wouldn’t have been that interested in anyway. Why go gawping at someone off the telly? They were just the same as us, weren’t they? They just had more money, that’s all.
My Mam and her sister – they must only have been about ten – went into town and stood in the crowds on Fowler Street, outside the great big Binns. When Elsie Tanner stepped out of her limousine their eyes nearly popped out of their heads. Not just at her huge, Hollywood-style fur coat, but also at her hair.
‘Mam, it was red like Heinz tomato soup!’
In fact, the whole crowd had gasped. Everyone in those black and white telly days was amazed by Elsie’s dark red tresses.
Many years later – 2004 – I told some of these family Corrie stories to Tony Warren as we had tea at the Midland Hotel. We were supposed to be having high tea in the special tearoom but he said he preferred to sit slap-bang in the foyer where you get to see more of life going on; more people going to and fro.
I told him these stories knowing full well that he’d have heard similar ones from all kinds of people over the years. Surely it had all been said before. But he listened very graciously when I told him that this stuff that he’d created was intrinsic to my family’s sagas. It was a huge part of our lives.
I also told him that he’d ruined my life.
‘How’s that?’ he cackled, looking delighted.
‘Because of all those strong female characters confronting each other over the years. They made me think that, when you have a problem with someone, the way to tackle it is to barrel up to them and go: ‘Listen, lady!’ And have it out with them straight away. And it generally isn’t.’
He shook his head firmly. ‘It usually goes horribly wrong.’
‘So I’ve been mislead!’ I said.
‘But it’s fiction, Paul,’ he said. ‘Coronation Street is all made up.’
‘Ha!’ But I refused to believe that.
And I still do.
It’s all extremely real to me.
Except when it comes to the current show. I don’t find all those serial killers and explosions and kidnappings very convincing.
I’ve really tried to carry on loving Corrie as much as I did in the past… but I think they’ve forgotten something central to the show. We should look at that street and think – this could be any street in this country, or the world. Instead we think – this is like nowhere else on the planet. We are invited to look at a place full of freakish secrets and deceptions, rather than the more humdrum ones that make up normal life.
So… in recent times I’ve felt a little exiled from Weatherfield.
And yet… this past week I’ve been delighted to indulge in a novel by Maggie Sullivan published by Harper Collins and called ‘Christmas on Coronation Street.’
It fits beautifully, easily within that genre of cobbles-n-heartache that we see everywhere (mostly in branches of The Works): they’re usually books set during the Forties or Fifties, about the early lives of working class girls. Pregnancy and war. Work and men and children and holidays. Custard creams and munitions factories. Often they come with a kind of built-in soft focus. They are about nostalgia and recounting a version of working class history that wouldn’t shock or cause anyone to choke on a bourbon.
On first seeing this book, and realizing it’s the first in a series that takes us back to Weatherfield during the Second World War, I thought: how canny. How clever. A brilliant way of bringing together a well-known brand and a very identifiable book genre. (I do love a good Saga, though I’m quite cynical about them. They have to be very well written to snag my attention.)
Pretty soon though, I realized that this is one of those books that’s branded so well that it doesn’t really have to be that good in order to sell well. The elements are all there already. However… the text itself is the thing of course, and the text itself is really good, I think.
What Maggie Sullivan (is it a pseudonym? It sounds too perfect a name for a novel like this. She already sounds like a Catherine Cookson heroine.) what she does is create a proper novel from all this TV backstory stuff. The scaffolding was already there in those in-fiction non-fiction books published over the years, but what she makes us do is live through the late Thirties and early Forties with these younger versions of characters we knew only when they were much older.
She fleshes out the drama. Those old painted flats and canvas backdrops get blown away. The sun comes streaming in, along with the smoggy clouds and the filth and the drenching Manchester rain and, as the book goes on, the real horror of the bombs falling and sudden, violent, arbitrary death.
She takes Pat Phoenix’s legendary performance as Elsie Tanner and makes her into a novelistic creation. She’s hardly even sixteen for most of the book and we watch her scrabbling about in the slum conditions her family are used to in scenes that feel like they’ve come from Elizabeth Gaskell. We see Elsie’s determination to get out and discover love and protect her siblings. She falls in love with a boy who goes off to fight Franco and finds early death. She falls for a dodgy gangster who gets her up the duff, but who installs her in the home she’ll Queen over for forty years… It’s a great story, and one we thought we already knew, but it comes up fresh and brand new in the telling.
The final chapters are, I think, the best of all, when we see Elsie settling into the Street. She is joined by pitch perfect recreations of Ena Sharples and Annie Walker. It’s a huge relief to be back in the company of these battleaxes again – when they’re younger, more vital, and still in the prime of life.
What I love about this is there’s a rawness to it all. The diseases and disasters of the past are evoked unsentimentally. Houses drop on people, people go missing. Terrible things can happen to folk. But those who remain still have to go on: they have to go on living out their own personal saga with stoicism and grit, and maybe a touch of wry humour.
Elsie’s fraught scene of giving birth – helped out by the terrifying Mrs Sharples – is one of the best in the novel. While all is erupting in drama Annie Walker - filled with dismay at what is transpiring in her back parlor - adroitly removes her good cushions from the settee where the expectant mum writhes in agony. A priceless touch.
I’m overjoyed to hear that a sequel – this time from Annie’s jaundiced, snooty point of view – is on our way come Mother’s Day.
And I hope there’ll be many more to follow, each of them dwelling on the years before TV cameras ever trundled their way over those famous cobbles.