In the meantime, I need something to do other than the blog as I'm still too crock to do much work, other than what I can do at home (these posts explain things for new readers).
T pointed out to me today the dedication in John Buchan's '39 Steps', published in 1915. It is accompanied by an explanatory letter:
My Dear Tommy
You and I have long cherished an affection for that elementary type of tale which the Americans call the 'dime novel,' and which we know as the 'shocker' - the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. During an illness last winter I exhausted my source of those aids to cheerfulness, and was driven to write one for myself. This little volume is the result, and I should like to put your name on it, in memory of our long friendship, in these days when the wildest fictions are so much less improbable than the facts.
The dedication reads: 'To Thomas Arthur Nelson, Lothian and Border Horse'. Wikipedia informs me the poor chap was killed in the First World War at the age of forty, two years after the book was published. He had played rugby for Oxford University, Scotland and London Scottish, the latter team of 1914 being entirely wiped out in the War. Various frustrations seem rather petty in this wider perspective.
So having found the writing of one novel a certain 'aid to cheerfulness', and being at a loose end now, I've decided to write another.
This second novel features the same main characters as the first. This time, rather than concerning itself with London, Russia, international finance and terrorism, it will focus more on the English countryside, the wilder fringes of environmentalism and the biotech sector. I think I'll also set some of it in France and the US, knowing bits of both places quite well. Though little of this is settled yet.
I've written the first chapter. Based on some feedback kindly provided by some early readers of the other novel, I thought it would be a good idea to start it with a bang (quite literally, folks). You may think this particular opening incident struggles to 'march just inside the borders of the possible'. But it does, as is duly revealed...
Here are the opening pages. I hope you enjoy them, but criticism is welcome:
A furious beating of wings, syncopated by a rising chirrup. Gavin looked ahead: a blur of feathers freed itself from ivy snares and sprays of dead twigs; it ricocheted its way up to the tree tops, then away.
"Over!" A deep 'o' and the 'r' gutturally rolled.
Through a net of branches he watched the bird rise over the field then bank steeply left, catching the wind.
"Back!" Repeated a couple of times.
A succession of shots, sounding like small explosions, crackling and distant. Something about the way the wind was blowing must be giving them a slight echo, at least from where he was standing. This particular way of hearing the guns always made him think of the rolling sound of artillery heard far from the front as reported in novels and memoirs. The shoot here had been going for at least a hundred years, and he wondered whether those poor buggers back from the trenches had managed to adjust to a life of civilian shooting. Must have been uncomfortable for some.
He recommenced his thrashing, head dipped slightly so the peak on his cap helped shield his face. He enjoyed beating far more than shooting. All that standing round, watching the world go by, before the intense and often short period of blasting. He liked getting stuck in, rooting around in undergrowth, like some khaki'd pig truffling nuts. The exercise, the fresh air, the close contact: all somehow seemed to purge him.
His head scanned from side to side, looking for pheasants nestling in the leaf mould or in the odd patch of tufted grass sitting on the fringes or in an opening created by the demise of adjacent plantings.
You had to have a degree of strength to do this sort of beating effectively: bashing through the undergrowth of a youngish spinney required it. Thorn, bramble, burrs. When he was a kid he had usually been given a tapping job: just the sort of thing for a child or the more delicate women. But more boring even than shooting. And just as cold-making.
You'd sit at the other end of the drive from the oncoming beaters, blocking off a little route of escape - something offering cover like a ditch or a hedge - with nothing to keep you warm except for the regular percussion of your stick on a post or a branch, tap, tap, tap. Not enough to get the blood moving. That is, unless you got a bit of a flurry in the bottle-neck you'd created. Then a roman candle of brown, green and russet plumage might explode in your face. You'd jump up, a star jump, a halloo'd shout, some waves of the stick. Get the buggers up! Nice and high for the guns.
High birds, that's what you wanted. High and fast - makes for sport. Today was a good one. Some very nice birds. Dry, so they didn't sit tight, with a decent wind that whipped them up and away. You'd only get them by swinging through with the gun, aiming way ahead of them. Shot didn't move that fast.
That could be one. He put his lips together in a pout, made a high-pitched, sibilant trill. God knows why beaters made that particular sound - but it seemed to work, got them moving. Another rustle, something disturbing a tump of beige, wickered grass ahead. A bird? No, it was one of the dogs, a little cocker. Pretty thing, chestnut colour.
"Good girl, that's it. Get in!"
Barks behind him, where the last bird had flown, turning to growls and yelps. A dog fight? People really should control their dogs - last thing you wanted whilst the drive was underway. Some people didn't have a clue. Endlessly indulgent or shouters lacking authority. Hopeless.
Now some shots and a couple of shouts. Someone seemed very surprised about something. He hadn't heard any birds go up, no warning cries from the beaters. A fox! That's what it must have been: drove the dogs wild and when it had cleared the area, when it was safe to point the gun at ground level, they'd blasted the bugger. Perhaps he was staggering on? He wondered whether there were any hunters around! They didn't like their quarry killed. But fuck them. Kill them when you have the chance was his view. Fucking chicken rustlers.
More shouts now from that part of the field, and across the line of guns. All hell breaking loose: dogs making just about every sound they were capable of, an all-round cacophony, another shot, and another, a couple more in quick succession. He thought he'd tramp over to the edge of the wood, where he could get a decent view of what was causing the commotion.
A burst of energy - some karate-kicking strides and one or two head-down surges - took him out of the thick brush. A couple more easier steps brought him to the edge of the ditch running down that side of the wood. He leant out over the defile, extending his neck to peer around an overhanging branch.
The first thing he saw was a head-scarfed woman, wife of one of the guns, who'd been holding a dog on previous drives, letting him do the odd retrieve. She was running across his field of vision, parallel to the wood; knees high, trying to get the best footing she could, heels kicking out, trying to lift her feet clear of the rutted mud. Her arms were in the air, presumably for balance, but somehow making her look as if she were fleeing something. Quite a parodic, comical look. But then he saw her mouth: open in a silent scream. Her eyes. He'd only seen such terror once or twice in his life. She half turned to look behind, stumbled and almost fell. What the fuck was going on?
He looked back, following her attempted eye-line. A mass of dogs and something else, like a heap of fur rugs. But undulating somehow. Movement back over towards the right caught his eye. He flicked his gaze in that direction: some of the guns were breaking from their pegged positions, running down the line towards the, the whatever it was. They were aiming as they ran. Not advised.
He turned his focus back. What was that thing? Then the writhing mass of creatures broke up, a dog flying through the air away from it, already seeming lifeless and prone as it hit the mud. The undulating fur formed itself into a crouching shape, then a charging shape. Could that possibly be a bear? Yes, it could. It was heading as fast as its galloping paws could take it after the fleeing woman. And that seemed very fast. It bowled along like some sprinting racehorse, but somehow bundled smaller, and more fluent. Shots were being fired. He looked right again.
Three guns from three different points of the field were aiming and firing. One of them re-loaded as he looked. He heard a scatter of shot in the branches just to his left. Fuck! He'd better hit the deck, he'd be in the line of sight in no time. As he went down he saw the bear stall, then begin to pull up, half-rearing as it moved ahead, much slower now. He saw a white flash of teeth in its jaw as it bellowed, an almost subterranean sound. More shots, and this time there was no peppering of the branches around him; rather a ball of shot crashed through the stooping canopy over his head, just where he'd been standing. Wood splintering and cracking. He inhaled the sweetly sulphurous smell of hot gunpowder.
He kept flat to the ground for a few seconds. No more shots. Dogs whimpering now rather than anything more alarmed or aggressive. A short silence then the sound of two dozen people talking animatedly all at once. A couple of women crying, one beginning to scream, a keening sound.
He got up slowly, looking ahead as he did so. No: no guns pointing his way. He looked where the bear had been. It was still there but in fur coat mode. A mound of thick, brown furs, piled high. A couple of the guns walked slowly towards it, shotguns unbroken and ready to fire.
The woman - Marjorie, he now remembered - was on her knees, looking back at the bear, just a few yards away from her. The keening sound was hers. Even from a distance of about twenty feet he could see she was shaking violently. He scrambled down the bank and leapt over the rivulet in the bottom. The momentum of his jump took him most of the way up the other side. He grabbed a couple of tufts and pulled himself up.
He could see more of the field now. Two or three dead or injured dogs away to his left, people kneeling down attending to them, shaking their heads, placing comforting arms on shoulders. He put one hand on a fence post, high-jumping the wire, helping himself by bouncing a foot on it as he went over. He landed, regained his balance, and walked over to the bear. Bear! He could hardly believe that that was what he was looking at. But it sure as hell was.
He looked across at Marjorie. Her face was streaked with tears, her nose and cheeks bright red. Mud was smeared down the front of her navy Puffa jacket. He assumed she was in shock. He had no idea what to do so thought he'd better leave her to it. He couldn't face giving her a hug. Anyway his curiosity had to be sated.
The two guns - Philip and one of the guests, an old chap - were now standing over the glossily furred carcass. It was a deep, changeable brown, just a shade or two lighter than the curds of mud it was resting on. He couldn't help noticing its shattered and bloody muzzle pointed directly to where Marjorie had crumpled.
The guns' heads were down, unmoving. They were staring at the beast, obviously transfixed. As he approached nearer, Phil must have become aware of him. He lifted his head: his eyes were shining, his nostrils flared. Excited as hell, his words tumbled out, his breath catching:
"Gav - it's a - fucking grizzly!"