My grandmother and novel-writing in my teens

The weird thing is, I’ve always told stories. One of my earliest memories is talking to my little brother who had just been moved from our parents’ room into ‘my’ room – so I was probably about three or four. I was telling him he was NOT to interrupt when I told stories and talked to invisible people –  or else. Another memory I can date is when I was in hospital to have my tonsils out at the age of 5. A nurse came into my room to find out why I was shouting – she thought I was having a bad dream. “I’m telling a story about a naughty hamster,” I informed her coldly. She told me to be quiet so I stuck my head under the blankets and went on with the naughty hamster story.

By the time I was seven I was writing several pages when we had to write compositions at school. It’s true that I usually left it until Sunday evening before I admitted I had to write something and my parents often had to shut me in the dining room which was full of encyclopedias and books so I’d get on with my homework. It was a waste of time sending me to my room because they knew I’d just read one of my many books. So I’d storm and yell that it wasn’t fair and then eventually settle down and start writing something.

This is when I got the story feeling – the feeling that something much larger than me that was also me was leaning down and pouring the story through my fingers and out through my pen. I always wrote a rough draft because I often had trouble keeping up with the story and so the first version was full of mistakes and words that turned into a scribble because I knew what they were. It was a wonderful feeling, a magical feeling and it’s still the reason why I write. Poetry made the story feeling as well and the sense that a poem was there, waiting to be written though I didn’t know what it was yet, was so exciting I couldn’t sit still and paced up and down for hours. I used to get a peculiar ache in the palm of my hand, around my thumb which was always the harbinger of a story and that still happens too.

When I was 12 I demanded a typewriter for my birthday. I got my grandmother’s old one and learned to touch type when I was 15 (I taught myself). I needed the typewriter, I explained, because I couldn’t keep up with the words otherwise. Sometimes I’d sit at the typewriter, full of the story feeling but not knowing what to write; sometimes I’d be writing and writing late into the night, gripped by what I was reading as my fingers typed it.

Around then, when I was 12, my grandmother decided to take a hand. She had been a Hungarian novelist before WWII and what she gave me when I went to visit her on Tuesdays was essentially a writing apprenticeship.

Most of the time she just asked me to write a story or another chapter of a novel and then critiqued it very carefully, usually in writing. She was only a bit harsh with one story which was about a cat and which she thought was twee. I’m still trying to write the cat book in a non-twee way.

I kept on going to her until I was seventeen when she had another stroke that put her in a care home. At least she saw my book in draft form, and said she liked it. She helped me with some of the situations in the story which were too far out of my experience. She knew that my book would be published but I don’t think she saw it as an actual book. I visited her a couple of times – the nurses put my Hungarian grandmother next to an Italian lady so they’d have something in common! – but she couldn’t really talk any more. She died a couple of years later, after my second book was published. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I stopped writing fiction for about five years then because… well, because my grandmother wouldn’t be reading it. I did freelance journalism instead.

Firedrake’s Eye was the first thing I wrote after I realised this and came out of the dry period. I wrote it on my grandmother’s old typewriter in a garden shed while I was pregnant with my first child.

Proofs, proofs, proofs

Back in the Dark Ages, before word processing programs and emails, you sent your vast wad of paper off to the publishers and if it didn’t get lost in the post, they would send back a list of edits. And then you’d do the edits and eventually you would get a much vaster wad of paper, A3 size, called page-proofs which had in fact been printed off the physical typesetting. The first thing you would see when you looked at them was always an embarrassing mistake which you corrected immediately with a terrific sense of relief.
You would have two weeks to do all your corrections in, usually coinciding with the Easter holidays or, I think on one occasion, moving house and you had to use special very precise typesetters’ marks which I still use because… well, because I can.
Despite what the publishers told you about only correcting mistakes, you would take the opportunity to make as many corrections as you could. Mostly they let you unless it got outrageous at which point they would charge you for them.
Some time later you would get your bound proofs, which looked terribly smart because they actually looked like a book. You could still make corrections so long as they were small, and sure enough, the first thing you would see when you opened your very own book was always an embarrassing (and different) mistake you hadn’t spotted at the page-proof stage.
You’d get pulls of the cover which I have to say, I always found a terrific let-down in those far off days. Cover design has got several orders of magnitude better than it was when my first book A SHADOW OF GULLS came out.
Then you’d get your first copy of the actual bound hardback book. And it was always a thrill and a joy because there were the words you’d written, made actually official by print. You’d hug it and show it to your mum and dance around the sitting room.
Then, of course, you’d spot the hideously obvious and crashingly embarrassing mistake in the first few pages which you hadn’t spotted before and was now uncorrectable.
This happens with all books no matter how careful you are and I’m now hardened to it, but it still makes me wince.
I’m going through my nice bound proofs of A CHORUS OF INNOCENTS at the moment, going backwards and reading it aloud in the effort to find every single typo and mistake and I know I’ll miss something.
But I still love getting my bound proofs!

A bit behind with things…

Really, this blog is about excuses. First I am being plagued by a gremlin: I lost my beloved battered Hungarian/English dictionary on the bus on Saturday morning, just left it on the seat and waltzed off and didn’t remember it until too late. Then the power cable for my laptop went missing: I still have a couple of places to look but I’m mystified as to where it went because I’m usually hypercareful about things like that.

And then on Saturday afternoon a glass of water was spilled All. Over. The. Keyboard. Of. My. Laptop.

It was an accident and at least partly my fault for allowing any container of any liquid to be on the same surface as the laptop because you know, and I know, and the Computer Gods know that eventually liquid and laptop will meet.

So we tipped it on its side and switched it off and patted it with paper towels and dried it with a hairdryer and I didn’t start it up again until I could get it to the Computer Guys on Monday morning. It seems OK. The laptop needed to see the Computer Guys anyway.

Plus I’m being plagued by a nasty cold and chest infection that seems to be clearing up but veeerrrryyy slooooowly. I spent the whole of Sunday in bed with a pile of snotty tissues and a brilliant book by Alice Hogge called “God’s Secret Agents” and dozing off in the hope my chest would have stopped making strange creaking noises when I woke up.

So this is it, I’m afraid. I had sort of plans to publish a taster of my peculiar SF story featuring a futuristic Robin Carey and Henry Dodd, but I haven’t got round to anything like that. Maybe next week.

Leonard Nimoy – lived long, prospered, now he’s dead.

I’ve been crying because of an actor one year younger than my father – I mean Leonard Nimoy, of course, star of the original Star Trek series, as Mr Spock the Science officer of USS Enterprise.

Funnily enough, in the hotbed of hormones that was the Upper Fourth of the Henrietta Barnett School for Girls, I wasn’t a Spock groupie. No, I (ahem, this is quite hard to admit to) loved Captain Kirk. In all his chunky male glory, I had the hots for the one who keeps going off at the deep end and behaving in a very emotional manner. Mr Spock was cool. I didn’t like that. I also fancied Dr McCoy which was remarkable because he was really quite ugly – I liked him for his crustiness and medical know how.

But Spock. No. That didn’t stop me from writing two mildly pornographic Star Trek scripts and then blaming them on a friend (sorry, Katy, I still feel embarassed about that.) There was a daughter of Spock’s called Spockina, I dimly recall, and quite a lot of orgying, written by someone who had been kissed but nothing else. It was obviously ghastly crap and let’s hope it never turns up.

A year later we were all faithlessly hot on the trail of Alias Smith & Jones which was a knock off of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I was after the dark-haired gambler, Smith whereas most of my friends were hot for Jones. I wrote stories for those too – slightly better fanfic as it’s now called and one or two stories were actually quite good. I learned that if anything at all, including wrathful teachers, stopped my friends reading the stories, there was something wrong with the story. One story had them all in tears, to my utter delight.

But although I lost the lovely melty feelings in my tummy for Captain James T Kirk, I kept an interest. I was particularly fascinated by some articles about Star Trek in the very excellent science fiction mag Analog SF. They explained that Star Trek had a proper set of blueprints for the Enterprise and that writers were expected to know what each of McCoy’s magic medical thingies did (they were futuristic salt shakers, by the way). Making sure that you have specifications and a full set of Lore for TV series, games and fantasy novels is now so routine as to be banal. But back in the 1960s, the normal thing for an sf producer to do when the action flagged was chuck in another alien and an explosion. Nothing was logical. Star Trek was the first series to do that thoroughly which was one reason why it worked so well, despite occasional dismal Monsters of the Week episodes. There was an underpinning logic that held it all together. Gene Roddenberry, the series devisor, had served in the US Navy and also had a feel for how Starfleet Command might operate – which JJ Abrams doesn’t. You got the sense of an actual Starfleet behind the USS Enterprise in the old series.

Also could I just say that it’s nice that nobody in the original series ever went near a gym. They’re all positively weedy compared with the pumped up kids in the Star Trek reprise. They looked like real people. Mr Spock in particular had arms like spaghetti.

And of course we all looked at what they had in the Star Trek universe and we wanted it: we wanted communicators and we wanted sliding doors and we got them. I love the delicious story of Roddenberry being rung by a major door manufacturer and asked how they got the sliding doors to slide in Star Trek. “Oh, we have scene hands behind the scenery moving them…” I believe it was only 18 months later that the first real sliding doors appeared, without the scene hands. I’m very annoyed that we still haven’t got the dilithium crystals sorted.

Spock I now realise was many fascinating symbols, but let’s remember one crucial thing: at a time when it was still against the law in some southern states for black and white people to marry and have babies, here was a half-alien, half-human hybrid being alien and human on primetime tv. That the man playing him was Jewish, just added to the delicious stew.

My one complaint – I never liked his greeting. The Vulcan salute was fine – but “Live long and prosper.”? How dull. How small-minded.

I much preferred (and still prefer) Captain Kirk’s clarion call, complete with split infinitive. “To boldly go where no man has gone before!” Ta DAH dah dah dah dah DAH…

Hi tax people! This is why you can’t put it all online!

The computer said no. It didn’t like my 14KATA. It was meh. We tried again. Meh meh again, said the computer, in incredibly convoluted Hungarian.

While I did my world-famous imitation of a very cowardly jellyfish having a nervous breakdown, Dora tried to find out why. Ah, she said. It’s the name.

So here am I at 9.10 on Monday morning, back in the horribly crowded waiting room of Erd tax office (or NAV which means Nemzeti Ado es Vam hivatal which means National Tax and Customs. I told Dora about HMRC which means Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and Dora thought that was very sweet.) We’re settling in for the long haul because there are at least 20 people already grimly waiting, many of them, guess what, with 14KATA forms which can only be filed online.

I’m here because somebody spelled my middle name wrong. By one letter. Where there should be an R, there isn’t. Deirdre became Deidre at some point in the form’s journey. They did it, not me. I filled in the form correctly and have the copy to prove it.

This is what has sodded up my attempts to be a good citizen and file my 14KATA form because the names don’t match.

Personally I don’t care that a Magyar, bewildered by a legendary Irish name, left out an R. Think what might have happened if I’d been called Siobhean, for instance? The personal tax number, the KATA tax number all match up, it’s just that pesky R. But the computer cares deeply about the R and won’t have it not matching.

So I’m waiting to replace the stray R.


We wait an hour and a half and then we go into the inner sanctum and a very nice young woman has me sign several forms, agrees the tax card is wrong (by an R) as well and says it’s now sorted. You can go home and file on line, she adds, it’s all working fine now.

Dora is too smart for that malarkey. No, she says, surely we can file it here now. We’ve brought the printed out form (with the R).

So we did. And I just got an email (in convoluted Hungarian) which agrees that I did that thing. It’s filed. Thank god.

And that, tax people, is why you can’t put everything online and then fire everybody except the chief executive and his minions. Humans are messy. Rs go wandering. Life happens. You still need humans – and enough of them.

When we left the waiting room was even more crowded.

Hello Taxpeople! Here’s a nice idea for you.

Very few things make me anxious – but two of them are anything new involving computers and anything at all to do with tax.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when the Hungarian tax people told me I had to fill in my Hungarian tax statement for 2014 online. It was only available online. There was no way of doing it offline, on paper for instance. No. Shiny stylish computers only.
We logged onto the general tax site which took a lot of doing because the tax people had sent me an email with a link in it and I’d parked the email in my keeper file and forgotten about it. Why? Well it was in very very complicated Hungarian bureaucratese which made my brain go numb at the first word, so I missed the sentence in the middle of it all which said it was only valid for five days.
So we got to the right page to change the password and made obeisance to the computer gods and got another link and put in a password which the computer didn’t like because not enough numbers and we did it again and finally got into the bloody system.
Now we needed the 14KATA form. Hokay.
We typed 14KATA into the search box and hit enter.
Computer had never heard of it. Variations? Nope. Look through the dozens of menus and submenus. Nope.
As I write this, there are small business people all over Hungary, searching desperately for this form because they can’t afford an accountant and, like me, they have suddenly realised they only have a week to the deadline for filing the thing. All over Hungary, people are peering at computer screens and wishing and wishing they could find the 14KATA form, somehow, somewhere. Some of them are probably in tears.
Yes, we rang them. After the usual rigmarole with the computerised switchboard, we got through to a human. It’s on the .gov website not the tax website. Of course. Why would it be on the tax website when it’s a tax form? How silly of us!
My friend has now sent me out of her office because she can’t cope with bureaucratese and the computer as well as having me sitting there vibrating and dry handwashing over the bloody form. When I left she had found 14KATA through three different submenus, though she had to install a specially wonderful automatic formfiller first.
Ladies and gentlemen of tax authorities everywhere. I have some wise words for any of you who bother to read this. So pay attention.
You need to make tax paying very EASY and SIMPLE. Why? So people will do it and you will get their money. Just because you have a PhD in Informatics, Taxation Obfuscation & Complexification, doesn’t mean they do.
So, for instance, when you can predict that lots of people, without a PhD in the above, will be wanting to file their tax statement, you make the form available under the search box as 14KATA. No, you can’t have fun playing with nesting submenus. Every search box anywhere in the system needs to be able to lead to the 14KATA page. That’s all.
Nice boring little link: searchbox – 14KATA – form.
That’s just to start with. I haven’t even got to the form itself yet.
Luckily my friend Dora is not only fluent in English but is a very good administrator and extremely patient. I don’t know where she’s got to on the actual form. I’m afraid to ask.
That’s all for the moment, tax people. Just think about it. We have to pay tax if we want to live in a civilized society because it costs money to supply one. One of the reasons why Americans live in a less civilized society than most of Europe is because they mostly believe that only suckers pay tax. One of the reasons why Scandinavians live in a more civilized society than most of Europe is because they seem to accept the need to pay tax.
But get this, taxpeople. It may be news to you, but nobody actually likes paying tax. And most people regard the time they spend dealing with tax forms, stupid government websites and madly complex bureaucratese in any language as an additional and very unwelcome tax on their time, on top of the tax they pay in money.
So make it SIMPLE and EASY.
Unless of course you’re relying on the fines for late filing to pay the wages of the taxpeople.
But that would be silly. Wouldn’t it?

What a nice surprise – thank you, easyjet!

I’m going over to the UK for a couple of days because my mother seems to be recovering from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
Yes, I know that’s impossible. That’s why I want to see her for myself. Apparently she’s talking, she’s alert, she’s eating, she was explaining the difference between a magistrate and a judge to one of the staff at the nursing home, she even read something.
When I saw her at Christmas she was unresponsive, only seemed able to make strange wailing sounds, had gone down to 37 kilos despite the constant efforts of the staff to feed her up and spent most of the day I was with her, fast asleep. So I’m going to see for myself.
So I booked a flight with easyJet at only half the cost of exactly the same thing from B.A., hit the button after checking very carefully and only checked the boarding passes they sent me because I always have to check.
Good thing I did. Instead of a lightening trip of two days (2nd to 4th February), I’d managed to book myself a nice extended holiday from 2nd February to the 4th of March. How, I don’t know. Fat fingers? I didn’t spot it before because the 4th of March is also a Wednesday.
Aargh! I said (and other things). I banged off an email to easyJet, then found the button that lets you change flights and did that thing at the cost of 35 GBP.
It wasn’t quite as expensive as B.A. but still a fair bit more. I tried to be philosophical about it, but failed as usual. Would it be paranoid, I asked my Facebook friends, to wonder if easyJet set the thing to make that sort of mistake.
Yes, it would, said one of them. Don’t be daft, she didn’t say because she has heard of Tact.
And the next day, it turned out she was right.
This is the email I got from easyJet customer services.

Dear Patricia,
I can see you made a genuine mistake with your booking and made the changes yourself online then let us know shortly after making the booking.
As a goodwill gesture I’ve refunded the 35 GBP change fee… You’ll expect to receive this in the next 5-7 working days.
Thanks for choosing easyJet. I wish you a pleasant flight to London Gatwick on the 2nd February.
Kind regards,

Wow! To say I was gobsmacked doesn’t quite convey how smacked my gob was. A discount airline? Being nice?
Wow! RyanAir, eat your heart out.
So thank you very much, easyJet.

BKK – I love you. Budapest is the world’s best public transport city!

Now I’m really not a transit fan or a public transport nerd or a metrophiliac or whatever you call people who like to photograph buses and collect their registration numbers. But I have to tell you that Budapest is turning me into one.
Why? Because it has a wonderful transport system. Hungarians and Budapestis disagree with me on this, they tell me it’s terrible, it’s dirty etc. etc. They’re wrong. If you survived London Transport in the 1980s and have any experience of public transport in, say, Cornwall you will be gobsmacked at how good the system is here.
For a start there are eight (count them, 8!) different forms of public transport you can use here. There are the metro, the trams, the trolleybuses, the buses, the HEV (suburban trains), the funicular railway and the cogwheel railway and the boats. Boats! One of them is 95 years old and still works well, weaving up and down the Danube and providing a timetable service that costs almost nothing compared with the tourist boats (750 HUF or about 2 GBP).
You can buy a monthly berlet (season ticket) for less than the cost of a week’s limited travel on Transport for London. You can sit on a magnificent modern tram that is the longest in the world (4 and 6) or you can sit on a much older tram (19) and try to fathom the workings of the little ticket machines stuck near the doors where you punch your own ticket. Each ticket costs about a pound, by the way, if you don’t feel like getting a berlet. You can admire the super modern stations of the M4 metro line or sit in the cute little carriages on the M1 metro line, historically the second underground line in Europe after the one in London. You can also admire the noisy squealing of the M3 line trains which were built in Soviet times and look it.
By the way, Budapest often seems to check what London does first and then copy and do it better. Budapesti Kozlekedesi Kozpont claim to have modelled themselves on TfL, though they don’t have Oyster cards that continually drain of money, thank the Lord.
Budapestis to the contrary, the vehicles are mostly clean and they seem generally to run to time. Did I mention my berlet? I love my monthly berlet. It costs about 26 GBP and lets me travel on the metro, HEV, buses, trams and trolleybuses anywhere in Budapest, as much as I like, whenever I like. For a month.
Match that, Boris!

Smug and the Stroke

I’m sorry, but I’m smug.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that last March 20th 2014 I had a haemorrhagic stroke which led to me spending a week in intensive care, two weeks in a hospital ward and three months at home in Torokbalint. (Find the blogs here.)(Or you could if the effing link-thingy was working).
The doctors have got me on meds to control my blood pressure which have some side effects and don’t actually seem to control my blood pressure very well.
So I did a bit of looking around and found that there’s a lot of research that says about 45 minutes of vigorous physical exercise three times a week will control your blood pressure just as well as drugs as well as helping with things like hardened arteries, stress and flab around the belly (though they lied about the flab part).
Aha! I thought, if I have to run for 45 minutes three times a week to come off the bloody pills, I will do that thing because I purely hate to take pills. (Yes, I’m still taking them but if my blood pressure goes down I’ll come off them slowly). Anyway, I’ve always exercised since I found that martial arts made me a much nicer person in my twenties.
I am now running for 45 minutes three times a week – and I just found out that on Sundays when I run for 50 minutes, I’m covering slightly under 8 kilometers – or 5 miles.
So I’m smug.

The Headman and the Churchman

Prologue to A CHORUS OF INNOCENTS, the next Carey novel.


It was a small chapel, stone built and once dedicated to some Papist saint. Since then it had been whitewashed, had its superstitious coloured windows broken with stones and the head knocked off the saint, although her cow was left in peace. The old altar had been broken up as the reign of the King’s scandalous mother came to its riotous end, the relics hidden in it levered out and thrown on a bonfire to burn as superstitious trash. By the early 1570s there was a respectably plain altar table, well away from the eastern end so as not to be idolatrous and a very well-made plain and solid high pulpit for preaching. Mostly from visiting preachers though, because who would choose to live in the village so close to the Border with England and the bastard English raiders?

Once, memorably, the Reverend Gilpin came there after the mermaid Queen was safely locked up in England. This was very unusual. The reverend’s summer journeys kept him on the southern side of the Faery Wall, among the God-cursed English, but a laird had heard him there and invited him to come and preach and paid his expenses foreby and the everyone for miles about had gone to listen. They still tutted about it.

They had heard some very strange things from the pulpit that day. For a start, Gilpin didn’t read the Bible texts they knew and liked, the good ones about smiting the Philistines or the book of Joshua or an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth which was good sense they wholeheartedly agreed with. Nor did he talk about the wickedness of starched ruffs, or vestments, even.

He read them some unfamiliar parts of the Gospels: nothing useful about Jesus bringing a sword, no. Strange unaccustomed things he read them about making peace with your brother before you laid your sacrifice on the altar and some outrageous stuff about loving your enemy.

The men and women shifted their feet where they stood and looked at each other sidelong. Did Christ really say that? Really? Loving your enemy? Was the English reverend sure? It sounded… well, it sounded papistical.

Love everybody? What? The English too? Jesus never said that, did he?

And the Reverend had smiled with a twinkle in his small grey eyes and closed the Bible with a snap, then leaned his arms familiarly on the rail of the pulpit as if he was leaning on a fence.

“Did you ever in all your lives hear anything so mad?” he asked in reasonable Scotch and they all laughed with relief.

He must have been reading one of those wicked papistical bibles the Jesuits spread about, that must be it. Jesus couldn’t have said that about enemies. What you did with enemies was you hunted them down and killed them and all their kin, which made far better sense. Honestly, the idea!

But as the Reverend spoke on, they felt uneasy again. It seemed Jesus had said those mad things. He had actually said, right out, that they must love each other, not just their own surnames which was just about doable, mostly, but everybody. Even the English.

It seemed Jesus had said the thing about enemies too, he really had. There it was, in the Bible, which was as true and good as gold, golden words from God, incorruptible, like blasts of the trumpet against the ungodly. The foolish Papists had hidden the glorious words of Jesus in Latin black as pitch so only priests could know them; now the words were Englished and turned to Scotch as well, so anybody could read them, yes, even women.

So what were they to think? What should they think – that Jesus was mad? Crazy?

Everyone had goggled at such… surely it was blasphemy?

A stout woman spoke up from the back of the church where she was standing with the other women. “That’s blasphemy!” she shouted, “You can’t say Our Lord was mad…”

The English reverend’s long finger stabbed the air as he pointed at her.

“That’s right, goodwife!” he bellowed, “You are the truest Christian here! It’s blasphemy to say or even to think that Jesus Christ was mad because he was the Son of God!”

He was standing up straight now, leaning over the rail. “And if he was the Son of God, then how dare we listen to His words in the Bible and not follow His orders! How dare we hate our enemies? How dare we feud and kill and raid and burn? For if we do, shall we not burn in Hell?”

And from there the sermon had turned both familiar and frightening. Familiar in the loud words and gestures, but frightening in the meaning. For the Reverend was not inveighing against the Papists nor the French nor the courtiers. He was preaching against themselves.

Against any of them that went up against an enemy to fight him, steal his cows and sheep and burn his steadings. Which meant pretty much every man there of fighting age. He bellowed against those that cooked and brewed ale for the fighting men or quilted their jacks in the old surname patterns, which meant every woman and girl there.

He told them that they were wrong and damned, that keeping a boychild’s right hand covered with a cloth at baptism so it was unblessed and could kill without sin was a wicked Papist superstition. That the whole of them, body and soul, was blessed in baptism, so that they could rise up, soul and body both, at the Judgement Day – which might be very soon.

Yet because they had not obeyed their true headman, Jesus Christ, then they would be damned just as infallibly as the Papists or the wicked Anabaptists.

Many of the men were scowling and putting their hands on their knives or swords. The women were gasping with outrage while the children stared in astonishment at the small man’s daring. What was an Anabaptist? Did it have a tail?

He quieted for a while, playing them like a violin. It was all right. Jesus was a just and kindly headman, unlike many of the lairds hereabouts (that got a small titter). They could make things right any time they wanted: all they had to do was love their enemies, make peace with those they were at feud with and…

“Die?” sneered the laird at the front, who had his arms folded across his barrel chest and his henchmen in a tight knot around him. As he was the one who had paid for the reverend to preach he was understandably angry. “That’s what will happen if we make peace with the bastard English. We’ll die and our families with us!”

“You will not die,” said the reverend Gilpin, pointing at the laird, “You will receive eternal life.”

The headman spat on the stones. “I didna pay your expenses for ye to preach this shite,” said the headman, “Get on wi’ yer job and curse the ungodly, man!”

“I am,” said Gilpin, seeming blithely unaware that every man there was on the point of drawing steel. Or perhaps he believed God would protect him. Or perhaps he didn’t care. “If you fail to do what our Lord Jesus ordered – love God and love each other – you are the ungodly! You and the English both. All of you, both sides of the Border, are the ungodly.”

The laird drew his sword and shouldered to the front. “I paid ye!” he bellowed, “Now do whit I paid ye to do!”

A purse full of money flew through the air and bounced off the headman’s doublet with a thump.

“I don’t need yer money,” said Gilpin, “Thanks to God and mine own weakness I am a wealthy man. Ye’ve got a free sermon here. Now will ye listen to the Word of God, or not?”

There was a moment of total silence. Then the woman who had spoken before (against all scripture) started laughing.

“Och,” she shouted, “He’s a brave man at least, not an arselicker like the last one. You let him preach, Jock o’ the Coates.”

“So,” said Gilpin after a pause, with a friendly smile to all of them as some hands relaxed from the hilts of their weapons, “We have a problem. If the Lord Jesus wisnae a madman, then ye all are mad for ignoring his orders.”

There was a growl from some of the men and more laughter from the women, sniggers from the children. You had to say this, it was a more exciting sermon than the last one who had had a lot to say about the wickedness of vestments, whatever they were.

Over the next hour the Reverend Gilpin proved that Jesus had actually said they should love their enemies and then He had actually done that very thing when the Romans had nailed Him to a cross, which must have hurt. And then, to show them all what they were dealing with, hadn’t He risen from the dead, come back to life, not like a ghost or the curs’d knight in the ballad, but as a living, breathing man that ate grilled fish and drank with His friends?

There was no possible question that He had said it and meant it and done it.

Now they had to forgive their enemies too and live in peace with them. That was all there was to it. And once they set their minds to it, they would find it easier than they expected for wouldn’t the Lord Jesus be right there at their side, helping them all the way?

By the end of the sermon some of the more impressionable were weeping. One of the Burn grandsons was staring transfixed into space, as if he could see something marvellous there instead of just a smashed papist window.

Gilpin left them all with the blessing, the full blessing from the evening service. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

Then he went calmly to his horse that was tethered outside and with his servant behind him, mounted up and trotted slowly away so the laird could catch him if he wanted.

It was so memorable a sermon that the laird sent to an Edinburgh minister in case Jesus really had said that about enemies.

He had, apparently. He really had. Though according to the Edinburgh minister that didn’t count for Papists and a number of other people, including, of course, the English.

So that was all right then.

Strangely the laird invited him again and even more strangely, he came, riding a solid ordinary hobby with his silent deacon behind him on a long-legged mare.

However as he came to unlock the wooden chapel door, he found a gauntlet nailed to it with a badly penned paper that said whoever took it down would be the Burns blood enemy for life.

Gilpin looked at it for a moment and then ripped it down. He carried the gauntlet into the church with him where he explained to the assembled people why feud was wrong, challenges to single combat were wrong and the headman who had challenged him was not only wrong but stupid. He was risking not only a lightening bolt, not only the wrath of God but also an eternity in Hell which was no laughing matter.

Foolishly the headman wouldn’t leave it be. He sent to Gilpin to ask where he proposed to meet and what his weapon would be. Gilpin replied that it would be at the tower of his Lord with the sword and shield of God.

The headman arrived at the chapel the next day with his sword and buckler and a crowd of his surname who came to see him beat up the preacher who had defied him – or laugh at him when he didn’t arrive.

They found Gilpin standing there in his plain cassock, holding a large bible.

“Och,” Jock o’ the Coates said disgustedly. That wasn’t fair. The book looked heavy enough to do some damage if he threw it, but what if he made a lightening bolt come out of it?

“Well?” said Gilpin, coming forward with the Bible open and his thumb set in one of the end chapters. “Will you draw and strike, Jock Burn?”

“Ye’re not… ye’re not armed,” growled Jock, horribly suspecting some of his grandsons and nephews were laughing at him inside, which indeed they were.

“I am armed,” said the mad preacher, “I am armed with the sword of God’s truth and the shield of God’s word. Will ye not strike? Perhaps yer sword will not wither like a twig in the fire nor your whole surname go to dust and ashes with you left alone until your enemies catch ye. For those who live by the sword shall die by it.”

Jock Burn backed off, paling. No more was ever said about the challenge and the gauntlet.

That was the Reverend Gilpin. He helped broker the deal between the Dodds and the Elliots in the late 1570s which calmed upper Tynedale no end and saw to it that the worst offenders left the area. He kept coming every summer, at first with his quiet young manservant and then, after the man died of a fever, he kept coming on his own, sadder, gentler now. He preached at several Warden Days, on the invitation of Sir John Forster, the English Middle March Warden. He carried no more than an eating knife and a Bible, he slept wherever he could find shelter and he ate whatever the poor people he usually lodged with could give him. He preached from his Bible whenever anyone asked him to and always on Sundays.

Nobody had ever seen or heard of such a strong minister, such a mad churchman, who had said publicly that he gave not a feather for vestments and as for the Papists – well, hadn’t he been a Papist himself once, before he read the Bible and understood God’s Word better, and surely most of them were good men misguided with only a few actively serving the Evil One.

What was more he never laid a hand on girl or boy though he had no wife either. Many were the snares and traps set for him by cunning mothers with girls who would have liked to be mistress of his rumoured large and comfortable living in the south. When a gentlewoman twitted him on his wifeless state across her dinnertable, with her daughters on either side of him, he smiled and toasted her and her daughters.

“You see,” he told her, “I swore before the altar of God to keep chastity and although I was certainly a sinner when I was young and hot-blooded, now I am old and tired and no use whatever to a woman.” He smiled and bowed to both the girls who blushed. The mother found herself wondering about his deacon who had died of the fever but she said nothing and nor did he. All the girls who had hopes of his rumoured magnificent house at Houghton le Spring were sadly disappointed.

He only came to the Borders in summer – for the rest of the year he kept a school at Houghton le Spring, boarded likely boys at his own expense and paid for some of them to go to Oxford where he himself had studied Divinity and sung the Masses with the rest of the young men before Henry VIII’s divorce.

Slowly, little by little, some of the men of the surnames came to like him, the women too despite his obstinate refusal to wed any of them. The children had loved him from the start and the lads ran to meet him when they saw his solitary silhouette with his soft flat churchman’s cap and warm cloak over a ridge along the Faery Wall.

Then in 1583 sad word came. He had been trampled by an excaped ox in Houghton market, lay wounded for a month and died of lungfever on the 4th of March. Both sides of the Border were stricken at the news and Jock o’ the Coates Burn and some of the headmen from south of the Border as well went to pay their respects in the south at Houghton le Spring. Jock died a few months later, leaving his grown son Ralph as headman and the grandsons grown as well, a lucky life Jock never admitted he attributed to not cutting Gilpin’s head off when they had met at the chapel in the early 1570s.

And the seeds that Gilpin had sown, dangerous and revolutionary seeds that they were, lay in the soil of the people’s minds and here and there they set down their roots.


I wrote this early in 2014 and then decided to completely change the way I wrote Carey 7, which became A CHORUS OF INNOCENTS and my next book in the series. I forgot about it until I found it last week. I think this bit of it can go into A CHORUS OF INNOCENTS as the Prologue.

The story of the Reverend Bernard Gilpin is true, including the bit with the gauntlet. He is now forgotten but he was a remarkable man who did a thankless hard job on the Borders for no better reason than he believed they needed it and God wanted him to. I have used a little artistic license in my story about him, but not much.