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“You’re a sexy suburban housewife on the make and I’m a bent copper. Let’s cut to the chase.”*

Being a writer can mean many, many different things. Sometimes, it means hours spent alone, dragging reluctant words from the depths of a troubled mind, forcing ink onto the blank page, one uncooperative phrase after another. Other times, it means acting as ringmaster to a cacophony of uncontrollable characters who fly across the pages with minds of their own, wilfully disregarding your own intentions for them. On occasion it seems almost impossible to stem the flow of pulsing purple prose from your fingertips as hours race by unnoticed, strings of sentences clicking into perfect place like links of literary gold chains.

Other times a writer’s lot will be that of a researcher, chasing down facts to support the inspiration, carefully noting the things that will never make it to the page but must be understood, nonetheless. Writers are the mothers of their works, yet must also be the butchers of the same – and be brave enough to wield the editor’s sabre, even to the most loved of their compositions.

There are times when to be a writer means to be one swathed in rejection and broken dreams, yet still find it within them to take up the pen once more, in spite of the negative tides that cast them time and time again against the rocky shores of disappointment.

But sometimes – on a damp and drizzly Monday in Cambridge, say – being a writer means sitting around in your pants, nursing the remnants of a head cold and watching re-runs of The Sweeney. Because life’s funny like that.

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Top quality line from the endlessly quotable Jack Regan, from The Sweeney

As If By Magic, The Shopkeeper Appeared (I Am Mr Benn’s Love Child)

Finding myself in a kind of literary limbo – waiting for news about my new book release and the next stages of a couple of other projects – I decided to decamp from sleepy Cambridge for a few days to the illustrious streets of South West London, to quell my itchy writing fingers and clear the mind in preparation for all that comes next. I have family links to the Putney area and thought that now would be a good time to investigate a couple of particular family legends originating from my Nan’s side of the family.

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My grandparents have always been a rich source of unlikely tales from way-back-when, especially my grandfather and his naval exploits. Whilst he hails from what was once the rough-and-tumble East End, decades before the fashion of creeping gentrification, my Nan came from the slightly more gentile area of Upper Richmond Road in the South West. Her father owned a large, double fronted tobacconist and sweet shop, where Mumsie remembers sitting on the huge wooden counter as a child, sucking the sugar off the bonbons before putting them back in the jar. Heath and safety regulations were presumably somewhat more slack in the 1950s than those we enjoy today, but one hopes that the young Mumsie had nothing but the best interests of customers’ dental health in mind at the time.

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Never short of quirky characters in our family, Mumsie had a cousin called Tom who at the time was famous for walking his pet chicken, Phillip, up and down Putney High Street on a piece of string. In days long before the easy availability of cameras, the only record that remains of this scintillating piece of local history is the word-of-mouth recollections of our good selves. Hoping that such a sight might have caught the interest of locals at the time, I intended to search the local history section of Putney library to see if any photographs of Tom and Phillip existed and also to track down my great grandfather’s sweetshop, which by now is likely converted or even demolished.

Mumise was very small at this time (she isn’t very big now, to be fair) and my grandparents’ memories are foggy after eighty six years, so no clear information about the location of the sweetshop is forthcoming. Despite being unable to trace this elusive emporium, nor finding any pictorial evidence of the enterprising Tom and Phillip, a happy couple of hours were spent exploring both the historical records and lively streets themselves.

Putney is perhaps the closest thing to Cambridge that you can experience in London. Here you will find the starting point of the legendary Oxford and Cambridge boat race and the banks of the Thames boast boat houses of varying grandeur, homes to all manner of top-notch rowing clubs. The bright, crisp afternoon was perfect for wandering along the river, watching a bit of rowing and hunting for another historical location – Festings Road.

For those of a certain age, a certain bowler hat-wearing children’s character by the name of Mr Benn needs no introduction. Created by David McKee, Mr Benn was a smart London gent whose address was the only slightly fictional 52 Festive Road (next door to McKee’s own address at the time of 54 Festing Road). Every day he would leave his house, dressed smartly in a black suit and bowler hat, to visit a fancy-dress shop where a mysterious shopkeeper would inexplicably appear and suggest he try on an outfit. Mr Benn would dutifully don the outfit du jour then leave through a magic door and embark upon an adventure related to his costume.

This was a successful quest and I merrily hummed the Mr Benn theme tune and jauntily announced the infamous catchphrase of ‘As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared!’ with the kind of gusto you can no doubt imagine. So pleased was I with my own adventure, that I had to go to a nearby public house to raise a glass to the fellow who served as an early influence of my love of bowler hats. Sharing details of my endeavours of social media, as one does in this day and age, I was delighted to receive a tweet from Mr Benn himself! His Twitter feed suggests that he spends less time in costume shops these days, preferring to visit classic car shows, but the similarities between our profile pictures leads me to believe that I might be his love child.

Mumsie has some explaining to do, I suspect.

More bowler hat adventures!

First Lady Of The Keys – Amazon UK   Amazon US

The Vanishing Lord – Amazon UK   Amazon US

Disproportionate Responses

I am not an overly emotional person, for the most part. My British upper lip is as stiff as my over-ironed collars and I often display a polite disinterest in the face of over-wrought outbursts from all but my very nearest and dearest. There is little that inspires such excitement that it must be displayed outwardly. Except, of course, for food. I find food ridiculously exciting. Someone who knows me well gave me a thoughtful gift that represents my entire emotional range in coaster form…

Over the years, I have spent more time thinking about food than I have my lovers and found it to be a greater source of jealousy, too. I have forgotten the names of many such lovers, yet remember with fond affection a leg of lamb I cooked one summer five years ago. I am protective of food, obsessed with and even a little aroused by it. My response towards food is disproportionate. 

Bad grammar makes me a little twitchy, too. Incorrect usage of ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ inspire violent thoughts. Ending a sentence on a preposition is likely to invoke feelings of incredible discomfort, even though I realise this is now a largely outdated transgression and it often produces an unnatural word pattern. I don’t care how awkward I have to make that sentence – over my dead body is it going to end in a preposition. Just recently, a very disproportionate response to a preposition languishing at the end of a sentence was produced from the seemingly innocuous activity of listening to music.

Now, I have written music and lyrics. Even I do not think the medium of song is an appropriate place to be applying the stringent rules of language and grammar. That would be ridiculous. But, even taking into consideration the need for artistic license, I was thrown into a fit of fury by one particular song.

Whilst searching for something on an old laptop, I became distracted by a long-forgotten music library which contained, among other things, Use Your Illusion 1 by Guns N’ Roses (the ‘N’ being fairly irritating when surely an ampersand would not only do, but would be more aesthetically pleasing). I used to be a big fan of Guns N’ Roses and other bands of that ilk and for old times’ sake I hit play. The whiney, nasal vocals of lead singer Axl Rose were more annoying than I remembered, but nonetheless, it evoked dazzling memories from those glorious, cider-soaked summers of my youth when I rode motorbikes and had unsuitable boyfriends, so I let it play on.

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Rock & Roll

Then came one of my favourites – Live And Let Die. Overlooking the fact it was written by Linda & Paul McCartney (my least favourite of The Beatles, one of my least favourite bands), this is a pretty good song. And Guns N’ Roses do a stirring version. Which makes why I haven’t noticed the offending lyric before even more mystifying. Especially as I always sing along, as is my wont. The lyrics run thus…

When you were young and your heart
Was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did)
(You know you did)              sing these bits in a super high voice!
(You know you did)
But if this ever changin’ world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die
What did it matter to ya
When you got a job to do you got to do it well
You got to give the other fella hell
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did)
(You know you did)       yeah! sing the harmonies too!
(You know you did)
But if this ever changin’ world
In which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die
Live and let die

 

Let me draw your attention to the line that follows ‘But in this ever changin’ world’. Yes that one. Now, alright, it ends with a preposition – that is annoying. But it’s a song, so… maybe it’s okay. What really isn’t okay is where those bloody McCartneys have actually set up the line in such a way that no preposition is needed on the end… BUT THEY PUT ONE ON THERE ANYWAY!! THE BASTARDS!!

I suppose you could argue that it is essential for the integrity of the melody but I would argue right back at you, sir, that BOTH ‘ins’ are not necessary at all! It would be perfectly simple to drop the first ‘in’ by replacing it with a breath between ‘world’ and ‘which’. I agree that dropping the last ‘in’ and extending the ‘live’ (‘li-ive!) doesn’t sound quite as good, but it could be done. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO NEED FOR BOTH OF THOSE INS!! Who would fool their audience into thinking they could relax and enjoy a well constructed sentence, only to shatter the hideous pretence only seconds later?! That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Paul McCartney thinks of you and I, the music-loving public. Bastard.

Anyway. This revelation has now ruined the song for me, but not only that – it has ruined the previously-loved Bond film of the same name, starring the immaculate Roger Moore and his performing eyebrow. Part of my life is destroyed forever, a ruinous mire of what it once was. And I am so very, very cross about it.

Disproportionate response? In this case I think, no. Fully justified.