Archive for the 'writing' Category

slow trains


fragment of map, Blandford cropped

1935 Map of the Somerset and Dorset Railway

No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Moretehoe
On the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road
No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat
At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester-le-Street
We won’t be meeting again
On the slow train.

I used to live near Blandford Forum, and for the past forty-three years have had some reason to pass through regularly or visit.  My grandmother was born there; my aunt and her husband ran a market garden from Blandford St Mary (it fed the town for two generations at least); my wedding reception was held there. But in the past 12 months it has ceased to be a node in my life.

I remember when they tore up the line, because it ran behind our home (see map).  It was part of the Somerset and Dorset Railway, the “Slow and Dirty” as it was  known colloquially.  I got into trouble for accepting a short ride between Charlton Marshall and Spetisbury from the workmen on their tractor and trailer.  My mother banished me to my room in disgrace, without any tea.  I was only four.

A few weeks ago, when I heard Joe Stilgoe’s version (right mouse-click open in new window, play track) of the Flanders and Swann classic Slow Train, my ears pricked up. This sounded special. The song is about the controversial closure of the local British railway network in the 1960s, of which the S&D formed a resonant part.  Where the original song is light opera, the cover is all cool jazz ballad.  Joe’s management put it up on Myspace especially for us.  Enjoy.

BromptonThere’s an argument — should it become necessary to mobilize a vast army of unemployed — to rebuild the railways.  If I put on my counterfactual-tinted spectacles, this network would never have been closed had the Brompton Folding Bicycle been invented earlier.   And there might not be a huge car industry now to drag us all into an even deeper crisis.  Just a thought.

Photo credit: Brompton Danny McL

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Monkey Nuts from the DFC

From Galleon-a-Go-Go, a Monkey Nuts story in the DFC Issue 22

I mentioned The DFC comic a few weeks back:-

There’s been a new Friday ritual in the Knackered household since May. A vibrant red-and-yellow A4 envelope, emblazoned with the letters “DFC”, drops through the letter slot to sizzle like a stick of cartoon dynamite on the doormat until the kids (8 and 13 years old) get home from school. They can’t wait to rip it open and devour the 36-page comic inside.

For newer readers (welcome aboard, me hearties!), this is a project from David Fickling Books and a large group of talented storytellers and illustrators aspiring to revive the children’s comic format, somewhat in the image of the adventure comics of the post-war period.

Our friends at The DFC have just informed us that copies will be available this week on a non-subscription basis for the first time. This gives you the chance to test out the comic on your kids, grandchildren, godchildren, nephews or nieces etc without requiring the full commitment to a subscription. So, for those who won’t take our word for it and sign up immediately, we’re happily spreading the message. Make a trip to Tesco between Nov 26-Dec 2 and be sure to pick up a copy for the modest outlay of £1.99 (it carries no ads, folks). Perhaps get one for your school too, and encourage them to subscribe. The enterprising DFC team is also looking for schools who would like them to conduct a comic workshop.

If you’re outside the UK, you can avail yourself of a subscription to The DFC online in any event. As a Christmas present that arrives every Friday throughout the year, and one that will keep the kids away from the TV and off the computer, what could be better?

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black swan jake


Tweet Jake Thackray’s Black Swan is about a pub and lost love. The opening verse is:- Down at the Black Swan We’ll go sing our love song We’ll sit, we’ll booze We’ve got nothing to lose We’ve lost it all, lost it all. Well, the last two lines speaks to our theme at least. In […]

The bad economic news goes on. But so does life. Consequently, I’m contractually obliged to indulge in yet more comic relief.

There’s been a new Friday ritual in the Knackered household since May. A vibrant red-and-yellow A4 envelope, emblazoned with the letters “DFC“, drops through the letter slot to sizzle like a stick of cartoon dynamite on the doormat until the kids (8 and 13 years old) get home from school. They can’t wait to rip it open and devour the 36-page comic inside.

The DFC, whose initials remain shrouded in mystery (alternative hypotheses are supplied inside the front cover each week, e.g. “Dracula’s Favourite Cardigan”, “Disco For Crustaceans”) is no ordinary comic: not that there are many of those left these days. This comic combines the talents of a rich mixture of graphic novelists, artists and storytellers, along with the literary demi-god of children’s fiction, Philip Pullman.

Mesolith at DFC

Mezolith, Stories from the Stone Age, illustration by Adam Brockbank

The weekend before last, the younger Chip off the Old Hack got to meet his heroes: a handful of the illustrators and storytellers were down at the Bath Festival of Children’s Literature, entertaining the kids and signing copies. I’ve never seen him shake with excitement, but that is how it was as he clutched his pride-and-joy, the very first edition, waiting for it to be initialed. Gratifyingly, the sight of the very first copy had the young illustrators cooing like parents over a newborn.

Well, if you haven’t heard of The DFC, publisher David Fickling wanted to recreate the great storytelling tradition of the heyday of British comics: names from the 1950s and 1960s like The Eagle and Bunty. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Fickling, someone who was, until that moment, an invisible hand in shaping the education and destiny of the two Chips off the Old Hack; he published Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson; he also initiated the Horrible Histories series. If you have kids, grandchildren, nephews or nieces of a certain age, these titles will probably be very familiar to you. The Knackered favourite in that imprint is the Murderous Maths series, and some eagle-eyed readers tell me that MM author Kjartan Poskitt provides the The DFC‘s puzzles.

Fickling seems to have an eye for the creative outlier. In conversation, it was clear that his passion is good stories and that when he finds them he’s prepared to take risks. Writer/illustrator partnership The Etherington Brothers put in several proposals, but threw in one completely off-the-wall suggestion with no expectation of it being accepted; this was Monkey Nuts, the tale of Sid (a tap-dancing monkey) and Rivet (a robot drinks-machine). Happily, it made the cut. Perhaps that typifies the joyously exuberant, anything-goes creativity that the publication is managing to foster. And young people (even slightly reluctant readers, in our experience) are equally motivated and enthusiastic to read it.

So, it’s a fair guess that something very special is happening over at The DFC. Already, some of the illustrators are generating interest from Hollywood; it’s said we should expect some of these storylines to find their way into future Dreamworks productions. And us paleo types can get excited, because Mezolith (above), written by Ben Hegarty, is the story of stone-age, hunter-gatherer Britons.

It is early days still. The publication carries no advertising, and (as I understand it) the forty-odd contributing creatives are part-shareholders in the venture. So, as a pioneering enterprise, it deserves your support. If you want the kids in your life to think kindly of you on a weekly basis, (and don’t we all?) I’d scurry over to The DFC website, and get them an annual subscription. Better than money in the bank!

Of course, if you are planning to go to the Cheltenham Literature Festival this coming weekend to see Nassim Taleb, the Etherington Brothers will be there for a The DFC comic workshop* too. Now what are the chances of that happening?

* The DFC would like to hear from any schools willing and able to host a comic workshop. You can contact them via the website or via their terrestrial address: The DFC, Oxford, England, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, The Universe 31 Beaumont Street, Oxford, OX1 2NP.

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AncestralFitnessCoverI thought I should point you in the direction of a new anthology of blog posts, written by some of the leading online proponents of ancestral fitness. It’ll soon be available at and will make the ideal gift for the Neanderthal in your life in need of a little self-improvement.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of ancestral fitness, it describes a lifestyle philosophy which attempts to incorporate diet and exercise regimes consistent with our evolutionary biology. That translates as a diet avoiding “easy” carbs, and exercise revolving around high-intensity workouts. There’s more to it than that, naturally.

Of course, top of the list of contributors is Professor Art De Vany. But why they roped in the last guy is anybody’s guess. I bet he’s pleased to be in such illustrious company.

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