Thursday, 1 November 2012

Vampires, Bunnies, And Some Surprising Behaviours Of Domestic Silverware

I am currently reading three books at once. This is not always a good idea. Plots, ideas, and characters segue from volume to volume like phantasmagorical double agents, creating in their unauthorised juxtaposition alliances ranging from the serendipitous to the absurd, and occasionally unholy.
First up; "The Evolution Of Inanimate Objects", by Harry Karlinsky, from The Friday Project, one of the quirkier, smaller imprints of the HarperCollins behemoth. Harry Karlinsky has a distinguished backlist of non-fiction academic work, and even before we hit Chapter One, it becomes abundantly clear why the publishers have found it necessary to preface the author's name with the disambiguating legend, "A Novel By". The supposed history of the life, work, and eventual mental degeneration and incarceration, of a putative younger son of Charles Darwin, he who both defined and destroyed what we now perceive as the fundamental bases of the Victorian world-picture, knits into a seamless surface, at once reassuringly familiar and distressingly surreal, the known and the unknowable, real and imagined, the rational, and the intensely unreasonable. Having by now somewhat recovered from the unexpectedly profound special effects of Mr Karlinsky's hyper-realistic faction technique, I have begun to develop a few, cautious theories of my own in respect of the novel's several subtexts - of which, more later.
Next comes "Nine Rabbits", by the Bulgarian author Virginia Zaharieva, translated by Angela Rodel and published by the rather delightful Istros Books, a small press devoted to publishing fiction in translation, with a strong focus on South Eastern Europe. In common with the previous work is its epistolary form, tricksy way with perceptions of reality, in the very best post-modern tradition, - and the pervading obsession of the novel's central "voice" with matters of the kitchen and table, as a medium for explaining and demonstrating the workings of their personal cosmology. 
One of the great joys, for me, of reading literature from other countries and cultures than my own, is the sensation of tasting a dish unknown to me, a dish formed by other influences and other histories, only comprehensible to my animal brain in the consumption and digestion thereof. And in this aspect, "Nine Rabbits" is so far showing itself a Michelin five star, luridly synaesthetic all-round box-ticker. Opening it is itself like falling down a rabbit-hole, into a dystopian wonderland of alternately passionate, and disinterested, brutality, told, initially, with the almost magical unconcern of a child's viewpoint, looking back with minimal reinterpretation but a steadily held lens. Stylistically, Zaharieva juxtaposes memoir format, diary, fragments of  epic verse, lists of alternate endings like a "What happened next?" adventure book, and of course the recipes, each recipe marking a significant moment or stage in the narrator's psychological journey. I have tried a few of the recipes along the way, and intend at a future stage to publish the results with a few observations, and other serving suggestions. Arse-End Potatoes and Monastery Soup (complete with incense) have met with approval, both for flavour and title, in my household so far.
Furry creatures of various sorts also crop up in my third read, "The Finno-Ugrian Vampire", this time by a  Hungarian, Noemi Szecsi, published by another relatively new, and definitely enthusiastic, small imprint, Stork Press, in an English translation by Peter Sherwood, who, as will shortly become apparent, must have had his work cut out for him (more power to his ink-besmirched elbow).
The chief bunny in this burrow is Initiative, the hero of the reluctant vampire heroine's proposed series of disturbing and unsuccessful children's books. Initiative is so named in English, rather than the writer's native idiom, in an apparently perverse tribute to the Golden Age of British anthropomorphic kid-lit both obsessively researched, and sneeringly disapproved of, by Szecsi's heroine. Other not-so fluffy cameos are provided by the pets - and sometimes light impromptu snacks - of virgin vamp Jerne's grandmother, the senior - and card-carrying - Finno-Ugrian Vampire, who keeps flocks of plump, sleek rats as a home-decoration accessory, not content with knocking off the plasterwork and carving faux bullet holes into the walls of the otherwise comfortable and desirable bourgeois residences she prefers to inhabit - genuinely dilapidated properties not tending to occur in neighbourhoods with sufficient class for our heroine's wealthy and aristocratic family.
A deceptively straightforward narrative approach conceals a peeling sequence of layers in this very entertaining novel, a relatively brief, but thoroughly packed read. This is something of a palimpsest book, a book about books, about language, words, nationalities, identities and translation itself. And it leaves its own peculiar flavour in the reader's mouth - salt, warm, a little metallic... I should have finished it by tomorrow. Full review to follow.

Friday, 24 August 2012

A Day In The Life Of Miguel De Cervantes' Landlady

"Well, that's me all right. Dulcinea. "Dulcie Nada', 'e used to call me, cheeky beggar. Nada's more than I ever used to get from 'im, I can tell you. Writer, you say? All I ever saw 'im write was promissory notes. Wrote a famous book? Cooking the books'd be more 'is style, I reckon. Drank, too. Coming home at all hours, raving about Giants with great whirling arms. And it was only the old Mill down at Cartama.
What was it called, this book, did you say? 'Don Quijote, Knight of La Mancha'? Well, a Mancha's a Stain, that much I do know. And if 'is bedlinen was anything to go by, 'e'd a damn good right to be a Knight of it - when 'e'd 'ad a night of it, know what I mean, hehe! Oooh, and the sorts 'e used to knock about with! Bedbugs wouldn't bite 'em. Mind, that Sancho, 'e was a proper gentleman, 'e was. 'Ad a few laughs together, we did! 'E ad this mule, 'e did. Loved that mule like a brother, so 'e did. And who's to blame 'im? All Christian men are brothers, says the Padre, but if that makes the likes of Mr Cervantes my brother, well, I'd rather take my chances with the mule, if it's all the same to you.
So, this Quijote, 'e was in love with this woman called Dulcinea, was 'e? And you reckon that's meant to be me? Not on your life! I wouldn't 'ave 'ad 'im with a whole sack of beans, as a present! Not that 'e didn't ask, I'll 'ave you know.
But I says to 'im, 'Miguelito,' I says. 'If I take you, you'll be getting rid of all those preposterous books, for the kick-off. They're not Christian, and they're not clean.' Know what 'e says to me? 'Lovely Dulcinea,' 'e says. Lovely Dulcinea! The ratbag. 'You're a true daughter of the Soil. And, such being your parentage, you needn't kick up such a fuss when some of it finds its way into the house!'
Well, I'll tell you what I did - I chased him out with the broom, and 'is grubby old tomes with 'im!
And off 'e went down the street, laughing and singing like a Heathen.
No Sir, that wouldn't 'ave suited me - not at all!
Now then, are you wanting this room, or aren't you? Last gentleman as 'ad this bed, 'e was a Priest, a clean, holy man, and a good eater, too. Any bugs as are in there'll come with a Papal Blessing, and a full stomach.
How much? Well, it's five Duros a night, and four if you eat here. Why's that? It's just my way, that's all. Anyways, I'd rather make a loss of a Duro than see one go in 'er pockets at the Baker's across the road, and that's my business, and my Prerogative, I believe.
You'll take it? I'll send Sancho down to take up your bags. If there's anything else you want, I'll see what can be done. Nothing lawful's too much trouble, as we say here, Sir! Hope you enjoy your stay."

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Journey To The Source: Part Two

The first bit was easy, and the territory well-known. The banks of The River were wide, smooth and flat here; on the left bank was a gentle rise, leading to a hill on which grew Standing Stones (probably an old sheep-pen) and mushrooms, which, come autumn, they would gather by the carrier-bagful, gingerly testing them for toxicity with the aid of Roger Phillips' "Fungi of the British Isles" and robust, youthful constitutions. To their right were cows, miring up the shallows as they waded in for their first drink of the day, sullen, steaming, untrustworthy. Also to the right lay flood-meadows, inhabited in spring by a myriad shrill and slippery amphibians, whose teeming children would be routinely kidnapped and kept in garden, outhouse, and pails of thick green slime, until, having swallowed the tails of their infancy, they should sprout unlikely limbs with which to climb the walls of their nursery prisons, and hop away.
For several miles, the stream remained easy to track, straighter than the road occasionally carried across it on low stone bridges. Here and there, too, a little footbridge joined one bit of pasture to its brother on the opposing bank, though it was shallow enough in most places to be easily forded by a sheep, or a toddler in red wellingtons.
A little further on, things started to get harder. The banks were steeper, the stream faster and deeper, and dense thickets of bramble and hawthorn in some places touched twiggy fingers above the waterboatmen and the snapping dragonfly larvae, in an arc so stooping that the three children now had to wade single-file in the rushing centre of the current.
Now they remembered the leeches. They knew, theoretically, that one could detach them with the help of a lighted cigarette, but no-one had thought how feasible it would be to light up whilst waist deep in black, leech infested water, which was undoubtedly already seeping into the rusty tin which contained their optimistic first aid kit, and a few ready-rolled tubes. Nor did any one trust the others to apply the necessary glow so close to their skin; but a bankside inspection at the next disembarkable spot revealed no hangers-on, so they were spared the painful proof.
By this time, they were feeling hungry, and thirsty too - who brings water to a watercourse? But they knew better than to drink from the River itself - not they! Water that was fast flowing over rock, on the other hand, was believed by all the children to be safe and pure, so when they came to the place where a mountain spring - naturally named The Waterfall - spattered down towards them, they took a brief diversion, climbing to the large flat rock at the clifftop to satisfy thirst, and view as much as they could see of their remaining itinerary. Here they also ate poor, unbuttered sandwiches, and set out three cigarettes to dry in the grass that was speckled with sundews, yellow tormentil, and dried sheep-droppings, which they flicked hilariously at each other with their sandwich-free hands.
From this point, the gradient started to climb. The river itself, of course, was actually rushing downwards, but we have to remember that the children were going the other way. It wasn't deep - the tallest child could walk along the riverbed near the bank without getting wet above the top of his boots, though the other two shipped water at every step like dwarfs hauling soft-sided buckets.
But although not deep, it was much faster now, and the stones on the bottom were slimy and treacherous, so they found themselves rapidly tiring. They had loitered at The Waterfall for longer than they had intended; the sun had already fallen away behind the grey, bare mountains ahead of them, and great clouds of gnats appeared, diving en masse with joyful whines to feed on sunburned necks and arms.
Still, no-one was ready to admit that they wanted to stop; so they carried on, rather slower, and much more ill-tempered. They passed the massive crag called Ifan's Head, but didn't see the eagle. They wondered if Farmer Jones had shot it, as he had threatened to do; which, if it were so, they considered a selfish and hypocritical act. Jones left his flock out year round on the mountainside, uncounted and uncared for, to live or die as suited themselves - what was a lamb more or less to him, when Subsidies took care of the rest?
Now it was dark, and they were cold, and hungry again. They had intended to pad out the sandwiches with blackberries, and bilberries, perhaps, but those were still, at midsummer, hard, and green.
For a while they rested up against a solid clump of cottongrass, sucking cucumber-flavoured reeds to confound their hunger, and arguing. Two wanted to go back; it was after dark, and they would be in trouble. One thought they should go on; they were already in trouble, and they still hadn't reached the Source; they would be punished, and they would also have failed.
The argument was abruptly halted by a noise. Something was coming towards them through the bracken on the far bank. Something big. A sheep? A dog... a panther! There was a panther, living wild above the treeline. Everyone knew it. It had eaten three cats, and a sick ewe, and once it had chased Mog Edwards all the way home from the pub, though that probably wasn't true.
The three scrabbled up to the road as fast as waterlogged wellies would allow. The road was almost worse, gleaming dully back down the valley like the trail of a vampire snail, emptier than the coldest, loneliest lunar landscape.
Then they staggered, stumbled, and ran as hard as they could, shoving one another towards the ditch in echoing, hollow bravado, crying not to be left behind, and hearing Footsteps, padding surely and rhythmically behind them, until at last, clammy, wheezing, heart-thumping hours later, they passed the safehouse of the first orange street-lamp and dispersed to their respective homes, too late for dinner, too late for bedtime, too late for any reasonable explanation.
And the map?
They had left it behind. For all I know, it's still there.

The Journey To The Source

There were three children, and they usually played together, taking turns to bully, tease, and perform practical jokes on one another, of invariable crudity and variable inventiveness.
They built numerous "dens" in field and hedgerow, of which the overall standard of construction ranged from very-nearly creative, to execrably desultory. Sometimes these makeshift homes would be colonised by other little gangs, and ferocious battles would take place, from which many a deflated bike tyre, dead arm, and torn jacket sleeve ensued. They broke into derelict cottages, all of them Haunted, and carried away many treasures snatched from between rotting floorboards and falling ceiling plaster - abandoned fossil collections, centenarian pickles, and trunks filled with mildewed books - Anatole France, Mark Twain (illustrated), religious almanacs in Welsh (some Methodist schism, belonging to the same era as the preserves).
And they loved to make maps, sometimes elaborate and detailed surveys of imaginary lands, highly influenced by Tolkein and Co., sometimes carefully labelled charts of their real, immediate environment, all landmarks of juvenile importance being scrupulously inked in under real or - more often - assumed names, fanciful, onomatopoeic, or simply descriptive.
On these more prosaic plans appeared in addition, indicated only by complex codes, the locations of certain caves and crevices in the surrounding foothills, considered safer havens than the temporary encampments of the "dens", where could be stored all durable, damp-proof, and illicit prizes, without much fear of discovery -  unless of course an older sibling, or other Enemy Child, should come across, and decipher, the map.
In the cave stores were also kept emergency packages, tucked into tins or plastic boxes and buried in floor or wall, as convenient, containing all manner of things of which one might have need when far from home, for all three prided themselves on their knowledge of Woodcraft and Survival Skills, garnered from such disparate sources as Baden-Powell's "Scouting For Boys" (1938 edition) and a much-thumbed paperback copy of "Papillon", daringly liberated from the Mobile Library. The factual contents usually comprised half a dozen Swan Vestas, dipped in candle-wax to keep dry, an assortment of unhygienic plasters and gauze bandage, and a lump of Kendall Mint Cake. None of them liked Kendall Mint Cake, but a Guide for Hill-Walkers that they had once read had recommended it, so in it went.
One of them was afraid of spiders, but more afraid of the others knowing it. One was openly afraid of Ghosts, whereas two claimed not to be, at least when there were three of them, and it wasn't too dark. All three were afraid of farm dogs, which was a reasonable fear, as these were the usual, bite-happy welcome laid on for persistent and habitual trespassers.
They spent much time by The River, splashing and ducking each other in the shallow pool where you could swim a few strokes if you weren't too tall, hunting for the bigger boys' nightlines and stealing their hooks -  their catch, too, if there was any - tickling tiny, illegal trout, and making dams that were meant to keep the trout from escaping, but which always ended up with colossal, savage eels as sole occupiers, having eaten such fish as might not yet have slipped out between the carefully placed stones and away downstream.
So here it was, one day, that the three hit upon the idea for their most ambitious Adventure yet. They would follow the River back to its Source, making, on the way, a new map, so accurate and detailed that even the Ordnance Survey might be happy to get their hands on it. (A previous idea, to follow the River down-stream to its mouth in Cardigan bay, had been discounted; not only was it too far, but the route would take them through Tregaron, where lived several schoolfellows they were currently anxious to avoid). So the source was fixed on as a goal. They called it "The" Source, just as in their local egotism they called their little tributary stream "The" River, because it was the only one they knew.
The following morning, they set off so early that even the most vicious of dogs still lay safely sleeping. Trying to move stealthily in dawn light, army-surplus khakis and outsize rubber boots, they scaled the churchyard wall, picking out a shortcut between graves and garden spiders (on overtime repairing dew-damage), hardly pausing even to peer into cracks in the slate tombs, to see if the Bones had Moved in the night. Down the steep earth bank that separated church from stream they slid, the last tossing down to the first their once-green kit-bag, tastefully vandalised with Punkish biro hieroglyphs, and containing the usual supplies, supplemented by paper, pencils, and a makeshift measure - a school ruler and a ball of string.

                                                     END OF PART ONE.
                                                 PART TWO TO FOLLOW

Thursday, 9 August 2012


    The earth is baked as hard as Neolithic pottery now, curling up at the edges, golden and done. The mountainous bones of the land stick out in the terrible, sleepless light like the ribs of a starving pariah dog. Even the olive trees, which seem not to need water, maintaining their uniform silver-green year round, are muffled for the moment in a gritty layer of fine yellow dust. The soft green pelmets of wild fennel began to show short weeks ago; already the Levante wind hisses through their hollow, desiccated stalks, ghostly liquorice pan-pipes.
    How our ancestors must have feared the sun. It starts life; warms and coaxes crops from the inert, chill soil; and yet at the last, kills it. How short the cycle must have seemed to them, that takes living things from seed, sapling, and fledgling, to hay, chaff, and ant-cleaned bones. Imagine how, long, long ago, before writing or memory, maybe even before we had speech or names for each other, a group of terrified creatures made their first, clumsy attempt to slake the vengeful drought, pouring a libation onto the dead ground for the pitiless, insatiable Thing in the sky to gobble up.
    Fast-forward to today. For today, in more than a hundred miniature Coliseii across Spain - at this very instant, perhaps - a man decked in a suit as fey and fantastical as any of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes costumes will step out into the ruthless sun and the still-clean sand, to challenge a monster from a primal nightmare, with a scrap of pink cloth and a skewer.
    High summer is the season for Bullfighting. In Malaga in August, every day a death, till the season ends in Ronda in September with the authentic, splendid barbarism of the Corridas Goyescas. The ceremony opens with the procession of the Damas, rolling up in a cavalcade of picturesque, picaresque "carrozas" and meticulous, flounced and fearsomely corseted eighteenth century finery, to occupy the most expensive seats in the country. And the killing begins - and ends, for another year.
    Goya, he for whom the "Goyescas" are named, loved to draw the Toros, his cruel pen quite at home in the Plaza. Picasso, too, though as a lifelong, elective exile from the Land of Bulls, he can't actually have seen a proper "Corrida" after the age of twenty-five. It might be on its way out now; Barcelona has banned it; but the images created by Miquel Barcelo to commemorate his city's last ever five o'clock massacre have been amongst the most stolen event posters in history. It takes longer than that to convert the collective soul of a people.
    I've never been to the "Toros" en vivo. Paying a month's salary to sit in the cheap seats at a culturally sanctioned crime-scene doesn't hold much appeal. But it's hard to spend a summer here and avoid the images of carnage coming live from the ring on the tv screens of every little bar and "venta" in the Andaluz community. So I've seen hundreds of helpless, predictable brutes topple silently into the dust, following a play - which the innocent victim doesn't know is only a play - of life, death and sacrifice on the little stage that, for two or three bloody hours, stands for a world.
    I saw, once, a bull refuse to fight. It does happen. Not a Little White Bull was he, though, but a huge black beast with grey splotches, straight from a Cretan fresco.For ten minutes he stood, motionless and emotionless, a monument of Assyrian stone, immune to taunts, goads, the spirited capering of the Toreadors or the murderous looking Banderillas embedded under his hard leather, letting blood like springs on the hillside. At last, the gates to the bull-pens opened, and in came the half-dozen cows, to lead him, victoriously garlanded in his revolt, to a better life, one hopes.
    And I have seen a terrible thing.A young matador, hardly more than a Novillero, hacking away at a poor creature for some fifteen minutes without being able to finish it off. The crowd roared in disgust, they booed, they threw things. Just as it seemed the stalls were about to explode - the young man desperately attempting to maintain the correct expression of noble unconcern as he lunged for the animal's heart with the wicked curved sword, again and again failing to strike true - an old bullfighter ran into the ring.
    He wasn't an impressive figure. He strained at the seams of his Traje de Luces; his short jacket barely covered his respectable paunch. His friendly, unheroic face would have looked more at home dealing out Pints than Death.
    With an imperious gesture, that would have seemed comical from such a prosaic form as his in any other circumstances, he ordered the younger man away. He walked straight up to the exhausted bull, now standing with blue tongue protruding, panting great, heaving breaths, unwilling to fight on, unable to die, and took its colossal head between his hands. Staring back into his eyes, the animal sank slowly to its knees, and he lowered himself to the ground with it as it fell. It lay, finally, with its head in his lap, and he stroked it and spoke soft, quiet words to it. I do not know what the old matador said to the dying bull. But three hundred sangria-fuelled, riotous fans of blood and adrenalin fell silent around them, Sol y Sombra alike.
    At last, he quietly brought out a small knife with his free hand, the one that wasn't cradling the great primeval skull, and with one slight, firm movement, severed the spinal cord. The short-sighted, uncomprehending eyes went dark. The bellows movement of the vast, straining lungs gently subsided.
    When the Matador finally stood up again, the crowd also stood. They clapped, slowly and sonorously, heads bowed in respect, as he left the ring.
    Death in the afternoon.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Post Haste

Well, then. Ahem. Ahem. I've just been looking over that excerpt in my last post, and thinking it over (with a little sage advice from some trusted friends. You know, the sort of friends who aren't afraid to take the car keys from you when you've just downed six bottles of Beaujolais and are about to show everyone how you can drive like the Stig off "Top Gear".)
Basically, my heroine is starting to annoy me. Well, she is meant to be a bit of an annoying character. But rather like the great Edward Gorey's "Mr Earbrass", I find it disconcerting when a character starts to assume a fitful reality on their own account. She may not have peculiarly unpleasant nubs on her greatcoat, but she is insisting rather a lot on telling the story in her own way. And if there's one thing I haven't got the patience for, it's a fictional back-seat driver.
So what to do? I could, of course, abandon her. I could erase her files, delete the post, put my pencilled notes on the fire. I have the power! Take that, mere paper person! I don't care what it says in "The Matrix", I made you, and I can snuff you out any time I choose!
But I still have some faith in the idea behind "Writer 51". After all, they got themselves born all on their own, without the say-so of any one creator. And that's such an impressive achievement in itself for someone who isn't actually real, that I feel they should be given a fighting chance.
So, back to the drawing board. Even as I write here, I feel an Idea coming on, haha... No, not that Idea, Lobachevsky. Athough... wait a minute... do I still have those inedited sheaves filched from Italo Calvino's wastepaper basket? I do? It might just be worth a shot! (Faint cries of "It'll never work, Carruthers!", "Don't do it, you mad fool!", "You'll never get away with this!", in the background. Fades to black, dot. Dot. Dot...)

Monday, 6 August 2012

Unforthcoming Titles

Oh, all right. Go on, then.
In response to massive public demand (well, a couple of people have shown a polite interest), I have decided to go ahead and give you all a real treat. I'm going to preview the entire first chapter of my upcoming masterpiece on this blog (first draft, anyway). Now, be warned. It's heavy stuff, is this. Hermann Hesse, hold on to your hat...
Here you go.


 The Prologue.

Someone once told me that publishing is like a lifeboat. I can’t remember who.
I can’t remember where or why, either.

Be that as it may, the crux of the simile, (to the best of my recollection), was that you can’t risk a lifeboat carrying, say, fifty writers, for the sake of throwing a line to a fifty-first. Writer fifty-one might well be as good as the ones in the boat; it doesn’t matter. Better that fifty make it than fifty-one don’t.

I’m Writer 51.

This is my story.

I always knew I was meant to be a writer. Even as a tiny child, I sat on my bedroom floor weaving my dolls and stuffed toys into an endless series of terrifyingly trite tales, graduating, with my first crayoned letters, to little books, lovingly and carefully stitched together out of scrap paper, (first by my mother and later by myself). These I filled with the somewhat morbid soap-style antics of woodland creatures, progressing as I grew older to even more saccharine epics concerning Elves, Goblins, and cloyingly romantic Countesses in sub-Bavarian castles. My parents praised me, preserved my efforts in their own special drawer, and told their friends that I was “So Gifted”, and would certainly, in the fullness of time, prove to be the next Iris Murdoch, or at any rate Margaret Drabble. By the time I started secondary school, and won the Junior Writing Prize – thus stimulating, perhaps a more important landmark in my early development, the first of a long, long series of Booker Prize Acceptance Speeches – I was already verging on the insufferable.

It was also the year I first met Mabel.

I say we met; in reality, Bridgington being what it was (twin town of Parochial, Alabama, and winner of Most Heterogenous Village In The South-West every year since 1868), I had worshipped her at a mute, whimpering distance since pre-school, gawping, longingly. As a fat kid on a diet mentally stalks the plastic Sundaes in the ice-cream parlour window. As a lazy-eyed cat-lover in peri-middle age presses up sweatily against the jeweller’s Spring Weddings display, drooling hopelessly at fantastical, unpossessable goods. But never, even in the most highly-dramatised flights of my fancy, dreaming that she could possibly one day be mine.
Mabel was, ( I beg your indulgence for the cliché), everything I was not. We were the same height, yet she always seemed taller, except on those occasions when she wanted to make herself cute, protectable and petite. She had dark, curling hair that was allowed to grow long; mine was limp and fine, and always cut off before it could do itself any damage. Her eyes were large, brown, and expressive. Or vacuous, depending on her mood and your perspective. Her nose was small and stereotypically dainty, whereas mine had just started with that dirty adolescent trick that makes it grow faster than any other part of your body, excluding puppy fat and feet. She looked pretty in things like ra-ra skirts and pedal pushers; I looked like I’d eaten the previous occupant. Puberty changed nothing. Mabel remained the golden-limbed beloved; I was Job in the pit, scratching at my acne with a pot-sherd.
In short, I adored Mabel with blasphemous intensity, and she in her turn repaid my love by using me, mercilessly and comprehensively, throughout our entire relationship.

I don’t know what impulse first moved Mabel to sit down next to me on the bench in the school playground. It might have been some uncharacteristic surge of kindness, friendliness even – we were all starting to experience the strange and sudden hormonal urges of a looming adolescence, after all. It might equally have been the stirrings of the killer instinct for a willing victim already awakening in her prepubescent soul. In the light of later experience, I rather suspect the latter, though somehow – God knows how – I find myself still wanting to excuse her, to find some scrap of genuine affection to fawn over with my untrainable cur’s mind.
I got up straight away, thinking automatically that she wanted the bench to herself. She pulled me back down, smiling. I sat, obediently, immobilised by her regal generosity and her beneficent beam like the proverbial bunny in the headlights.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Gloria.”
“I’m Mabel. With an E.”
I didn’t know how else you could spell it, but I didn’t say so.
“I like Duran Duran. Who do you like?”
I didn’t like Duran Duran. I said,
“I like the blond one. He’s lush.”
I didn’t even know if there was a blond one. I presumed there was. There usually was.
“Do you want to be friends?”
Did I want to be friends! Did I want to be friends with Mabel Godalming!
It wasn’t even a question.
I must have sat staring for longer than I thought. “We could sit together at lunch,” she added, maybe thinking (Impossible!) that I was going to reject her magnanimous offer.
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” I said, not wanting to seem over eager, and possibly scare her away. “I mean, I mean, that’d be Lush. Cool.”
The bell rang just as my brain fainted, saving me from the mute confession that must surely have come, that I had no more words to say.

We were an item.
Every day we sat together on the bench at playtime, writing alternately Hilarious and Deeply Tragic pieces for inclusion in the school magazine, of which I was also the new, uncontested Editor. At any rate, I wrote; Mabel just had to Be. Occasionally, I included an article under her name; as my Muse and constant companion, I felt it was only fair that she should receive some credit for her input, even if only I, she, and our English teacher, would ever see it. (Of course I also believed, semi-secretly, that back issues of the “Bridgington Comprehensive Times” from our era would, some day, fetch record-breaking prices on the collector’s market).
I was on a roll. Drawing on a spectacular overflow of confidence and creative juice, I now completed, and submitted, my very first novel. Naturally, I had written “novels” before, but they had been just stories that rambled more than usual, in bigger writing. This was the real thing; a monster with more than fifty chapters and five hundred pages, covering the whole range of teenaged emotion from grovelling self-pity to screaming hysteria, and all dressed in a plot you could have invaded Poland with. I think it was about a kind of sad Vampire girl who is thwarted in her love for a rather effeminate Knight Templar, his appearance clearly based heavily on Mabel’s performance in the school production of “Ivanhoe”.
Using only one finger, and the English department typewriter, (to which my editorial status gave me, fortunately, unlimited access) I typed out every one of the five hundred leaden pages to the correct double-spaced, A4 format, and posted it – to Penguin, if memory serves.
Two weeks later, I also received my very first Rejection Letter. I kept it for years. It was kindly phrased, and hand-written (unlike so many to come), and I cried like a great, flouncing baby.
By the following day, I had decided that Penguin books had simply made a terrible, Philistine mistake. Future generations would shake their heads over this one, I thought, and in a gesture of great trust and generosity, I gave the manuscript (which had been considerately returned to me, even though, in my egotism, I had quite consciously omitted to include a stamped addressed envelope), to Mabel for safekeeping, until such time as Future Generations should have got their act together.
She said she didn’t want it.
“It’s Not Quite the Sort of Thing I’m Looking For Just Now”, she parroted happily.
I stuck the manuscript in the top of her school bag and ran off in a deflated little cloud of  doubly rejected misery.

I got over it. Soon the Team was back on the bench, Coleridge and Wordsworth, Riding and Graves, Ezra Pound and T S Eliot (even if Ezra seemed to spend a lot more time polishing her nails than her namesake would have.).
The future beckoned, wreathed in rosy-fingered, metaphorically confused glory.

                                                          *              *             *

We’ve both got the wrong names, Mabel said. You’re not a Gloria. I mean, “Gloria” is for actresses, and pop-stars. It isn’t you at all. And I’m not a Mabel. “Mabel”s an ugly name, it’s like fatties, and speckos. There aren’t any models called “Mabel”, are there? It’s just ugly, common and ugly.
I didn’t think “Mabel” was ugly. “Mabel” was a beautiful name. Of course it was, it was Mabel’s name. “Gloria” was ugly. How could she think “Gloria” was glamorous? “Gloria” was an old-lady name. If names had a scent, “Mabel” would smell like orchard apples, and minty gum breath, and romping in hay-lofts. “Gloria” would probably smell more like pink hair-curlers, old Lycra, and stress incontinence.
Still, I felt a little hurt that Mabel didn’t think I could have a glamorous name. But she didn’t mean it. And anyway, she was right – I wasn’t glamorous, not in that sort of way. But it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t going to be a pop-star, or a telly presenter, or a vacant, empty-headed actress. I didn’t need that. I was going to be a writer, wasn’t I? A famous, wealthy writer. Gloria Lambert, author. Novelist. Booker Prize Winning Novelist. Nobel Prize. Why not?

When you’re a really rich writer, of course, you can buy couture clothes, you can have designers design you things, you can be Sophisticated, which is actually much posher than Glamorous. And people still want to sleep with you. People wanted to sleep with George Sand, even, and she wasn’t Glamorous. She wasn’t even normal-looking, and she did all right.

I felt reassured. As long as I stuck to the plan, everything was going to be fine.