A personal account of the kindness of John le Carré

David Cornwell

There must be thousands of people blessed with happy memories of David Cornwell, a man better known as the author John le Carré, who sadly left us a few days ago. What follows are my own reasons for being intensely grateful to this supremely talented and generous-spirited man, things that others might regard as minor, but which I didn’t feel would be right to make public before now.

I’m pretty sure that I read my first John le Carré book three decades ago in 1990 when I was living in Notting Hill in London, and the book was Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. What can I say? I was entranced by it and I went on to read everything he’d written, before or since. I’m certain that not a year has gone by without me reading at least one of this great man’s works, and I’ve re-read most of them several times on account of the deep satisfaction and intense pleasure they’ve given me.

I saw the film of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, for which, in any civilised world, the late Richard Burton would have won an Oscar, so I may well have read the book of the same name around that time; all I recall for certain is that I was mesmerised by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in 1990 and that I subsequently devoured any book, or any film of a John le Carré book, with the utmost enjoyment.

As I’ve mentioned before, on this site and elsewhere, I fell terribly ill on March 10th 2016 and while my life was saved by some of the wonderful people who staff our NHS, I suffered badly for nearly two years after my successful heart operation at London’s Royal Brompton Hospital. My suffering was almost entirely psychological, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, but that doesn’t matter now because I’m better, I’m grateful for all the care I received and it’s all behind me.

I mention this because on March 8th 2018, nearly two years to the day since I’d fallen ill, I was alone in my former home in Sowton, reclining in my packed study, cheerfully reflecting on how life had almost entirely changed for the better over the preceding two years. My reverie was rudely interrupted by a frantic hammering at my front door, by a lady who kept her horses in the fields surrounding where I lived, to warn me that my thatched home was on fire. Or rather that the adjoining building was on fire.

Despite the very best efforts of our fire service and some of my neighbours, our home was rapidly lost in a shocking conflagration. With the brave assistance of some of these selfless people, we managed to retrieve a few personal belongings, but the vast majority were turned to ash in the pitiless flames. Due to the confusion of the night, which included me being taken to hospital to be treated for the effects of smoke inhalation, it was perhaps a few weeks before we were able to take full stock of what had been destroyed and what had survived.

To my amazement, after having lost some thousands of other books, I discovered that every last one of my John le Carré novels had survived. I still cannot understand why this was and I’ve given up trying to grasp what happened in the brief time between the fire being discovered and my home being destroyed.

A few of these books must have been piled or grouped together in my study, but the rest were scattered around the house, as I had perhaps as many as three casually on the go at any one time. I know I saved other personal possessions, but I have no memory whatever of rescuing the books in question, either consciously or subconsciously.

To put my dazed frame of mind in some perspective, I remember seeing Kristin, one of my neighbours, in my front room, in her pyjamas; it was blindingly obvious that she’d been alerted by the flames and had generously hurried over to help, because she said as much to me, but I was still baffled by her presence and I’m certain I muttered something inane to this effect at the time.

Some months later, I had a long conversation with my friend the philosopher Peter Sjöstedt Hughes, who lives in Cornwall and who, like me, is a great admirer of John le Carré and his writings. I told Pete about the strange survival of my collection of John le Carré’s novels, and he told me that he was confident that the author would like to hear of this, a suggestion I’m indebted to Pete for articulating. I’d been thinking along similar lines myself, so a few days later, I wrote to David Cornwell aka the author John le Carré in Buryan, Cornwall, confident that what I’d written would soon find its way to a world famous man who’d lived in this village for over 40 years.

I had a very good excuse to write an appreciative letter to a man whose novels I’d read and avidly re-read for three decades, while I made it perfectly clear that I wasn’t expecting a reply of any kind. It was enough for me that he learned of my existence and of my intense admiration and appreciation for his writing, so I happily dispatched my missive with no anticipation of hearing back from him.

However, just over a week later, I was taken aback to receive a reply from him by post, in which he supplied his home address. He had various things to say, all of which I was delighted to read, but for the purposes of this post, the passage that stunned me was when he said that he was humbled to learn of the survival of my collection, then offered to sign all the books for me if I could get them to him somehow.

I’m not a kid anymore – far from it – but my heart soared when I read this, something I had to do several times before it really sank in. What an incredibly generous-spirited and kind thing of him to say. I remember staring at his letter with a grin like the Cheshire Cat, as if it were first edition Holy Writ, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

I’d have loved to have had a collection of some of the greatest novels in the English language, all personally signed by their supremely gifted author, but I never took him up on it. Part of me mildly regrets this, but despite the offer in writing, I still felt it would be poor form to turn up with an industrial collection of books for him to sign, something I feel would have been even more onerous for him if I’d sent the lot by post.

I think that as things stand, I saved him a half an hour or so that he doubtless spent far more profitably and enjoyably elsewhere, while I’m left as a grateful recipient of his wonderful letter and his warm heart, so my stoic nature tells me that everyone’s a winner. Apart from his large and loving family, that is, to whom I naturally send my deepest condolences and warmest best wishes; for what little it’s worth, my own father died on December 10th many years ago, but I still recall the deep sorrow of losing a family member so close to Christmas, a time when we should all be celebrating.

It goes without saying that this past year has been very tough for everyone, so it’s no surprise that on my news feed and elsewhere I constantly read the simple exhortation “Be Kind”. And for the thousandth time, I reflect, how lucky am I? In addition to all my other many blessings, I have a personal letter from the greatest writer of modern times, full of kind words, and the offer to sign all his books for me.

What a wonderful, generous, amazing man you were, David; a shining example to the rest of us. Perhaps this isn’t entirely in accordance with your personal beliefs, but thank you from the bottom of my heart, and God bless you, wherever you are.



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Jesus in Britain – prehistoric ingots of tin from Cornwall discovered in Israel

It can be shocking to discover just how quickly time can go by when one is preoccupied, and this is something I’ve experienced for myself once again over the course of the last few days. To my deep regret, I’ve not published a post on this site for months – not because I’ve run out of material, far from it – but because one particular writing project, coupled with other matters, have demanded my attention.

I’ve had neither the cause nor the opportunity to even revisit some of my writings on Stonehenge in recent times, even though the stats page on this site has long shown a steady stream of visitors to the posts I published dealing with the mediaeval poem The Ruin and my certainty that it was inspired by a traveller’s tale of Stonehenge.

I’ve written about numerous other subjects here, but the one I’m most constantly aware of, I suppose, is the subject of Jesus in Britain, on account of the book I had published in 2009 entitled The Missing Years of Jesus, which you can read more about, if you wish, on this link. I composed this book over a decade ago and I long ago became aware of its failings, but I am still proud of it and I still continue to receive generous-spirited correspondence from others who have read it and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I also continue to either find or else to receive new information that I wasn’t aware of when I wrote my book, such as a detail of another purported visit to Britain “in ancient time” made by Joseph of Arimathea and a young Jesus to a port in what is now Hampshire, from which they found their way up a river to Priddy. To my mind, the subject of Jesus in Britain is enthralling enough anyway, but jewels like the one above serve to keep my interest alive and to bolster my hope that, one day, something seismic will come to light.

At the same time, I received the inevitable slagging from some of our deeply embittered, home-grown maniacs both here in Britain, and also from across the world. Other sections of British society flatly ignored me and rightly so, because I don’t possess a Degree in Archaeology, and what would the world come to if informed amateurs such as myself, albeit one with a Classical education, were to be taken at all seriously when they investigated and held forth upon historical matters? A good many clergy interviewed me when my book was published, while others have since written encouragingly to me, so it would be churlish of me to lump them together with the extreme, uninformed doubters in their midst.

Imagine my joy, therefore, when I came across this wonderful feature by Amanda Borschel-Dan, the Jewish World and Archaeology editor for The Times of Israel. This lady’s highly detailed feature deals with the discovery in Israel of prehistoric ingots of tin that were analysed and shown to have originated in Cornwall, just as I had written about in absolutely meticulous detail about in book.

You can read this magnificent piece for yourself, of course, but I feel it’s important to point out here and now that it’s not some inane drivel or wishful thinking penned by some pot-smoking hippy. On the contrary, there’s everything here that a serious archaeologist or churchman could possibly wish for, such as peer-reviewed papers, photos, histories, isotope and chemical analysis, interdisciplinary scientists and other treasures. Seriously, it’s enough to make even the most cold-hearted British archaeologist swoon with utter joy, the only drawback being that all these wonders add a solid base to the many questions I looked into in my book.

A story comes down to us from antiquity, telling us that when Pythagoras realised that his famous theorem worked, he sacrificed a hundred oxen to the Muse. I have reasons to doubt the veracity of this tale, but it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, because I can recognise the sheer elation of being shown to be right on a contentious issue, especially after having waited for a decade. And on that blissfully happy note, I’m going to cut short what could easily turn out to be an inordinately and increasingly incoherent post in order to celebrate for a few hours.

My warm thanks and intense gratitude go to Amanda Borschel-Dan.

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Stonehenge and Another Failing of Science.

Back in 2004 or thereabouts, after I’d left Wessex Archaeology and before I started my Eternal Idol site, I wrote a book on Stonehenge provisionally entitled A Glimpse of the Great Beyond, a work based on my absolute conviction that one didn’t have to rely on archaeological excavations at the ravaged, desecrated site to be able to say new and original things about the ruins and their distant origins.

Glancing at the first chapter, I’m satisfied that it holds up all these years later, despite the many things that have been written and said in the intervening time about the mysterious monument on Salisbury Plain. I’ll reproduce a small excerpt from Chapter I here and I’ll leave it to others to decide for themselves what they think, while part of it has some bearing on what follows later in this post:

“Why has no one yet successfully transported a bluestone from south Wales to Salisbury Plain using agreed prehistoric methods? We have the manpower, we have the flint axes for cutting down trees for rollers and rafts, we probably have the intelligence, the physical strength and the ingenuity, we have ropes and we have grease. We have everything we could possibly wish for aside from one vital ingredient, which is passion, because no individual or group of people today is sufficiently motivated to recreate the journey of one of the bluestones or sarsens, let alone attempt to reconstruct the entire monument using prehistoric methods. The word ‘passion’ comes from the Latin verb ‘patior’ meaning ‘I suffer’, so in this context, I would define passion as the capacity to voluntarily endure hardship or suffering towards a greater end, while being fully aware that there is no absolute guarantee of success. So, right at the beginning of our quest, we can now point without question to one intangible, abstract but nonetheless very real quality that our ancestors possessed specifically with regard to Stonehenge.

“Identifying this element is all well and good, but does it have any practical application that will assist in enabling us to reach the solution we seek? Out of pure curiosity, let us say, do any practices exist today that not only have their basis in antiquity, but also involve passion in the literal sense we’ve described? One such tradition immediately springs to mind and it is the modern Olympic marathon. To win this race is arguably the pinnacle of human sporting achievement and it is easy to understand why, as anyone who has watched the agonized faces of the runners can testify. These people voluntarily put themselves through the extremes of human endurance during the race, while training relentlessly in a Spartan regime for years beforehand. And why do these men and women choose to suffer so? For the chance of glory and to demonstrate what humans are capable of achieving in a strictly delineated field, that of long distance running in this case.

“The marathon was never an event in the ancient Olympic games, but was reintroduced in modern times in memory of Pheidippides, who was said to have run the twenty-six miles back from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to proclaim that the Persians had been defeated. Once he’d announced the victory, he collapsed and died and little wonder, given the heat, the length of the journey back, the difficult terrain he had to cross and the fact that he’d just fought a desperate pitched battle against an invader superior in numbers. This is the story that we accept and rejoice in today, but the likely truth is even more astonishing, because the tale of Pheidippides running the twenty-six miles or so to Athens was a later version. The Greek historian Herodotus, writing closer to the time, relates that Pheidippides actually ran from Marathon to Sparta before the battle took place to request assistance from the Spartans and he is said to have covered one hundred and fifty miles in two days, a vast distance even by the standards of our modern athletes. Going on the evidence of this account, the accomplishments of our ancestors were even more impressive than we sometimes suppose.

“The Oxford Classical Dictionary, Second Edition, describes the death of Alexander the Great in the following lyrical terms “In him the soul wore out the breast and he died, in his thirty-third year, of a fever which might well have spared him had he ever known how to spare himself.” I would suggest that very much the same thing applied to the demise of Pheidippides, but despite the risk of injury or even death, our modern athletes continue to be inspired by the sheer passion displayed by this dead hero, regardless of the real route or the exact distance covered. They continue to run the marathon and will almost certainly do so for centuries to come, because the prize for triumph is so great and so alluring.

“It would be as well to bear in mind this potent element of passion when considering the reasons that Stonehenge was erected. Nearly two and a half thousand years after the death of Pheidippides, the whole world still remembers his name, the name of the battlefield from whence he came, the route that he took and the reason he ran it, despite his doubtless real suspicion that this feat would almost certainly result in his own premature death. A natural consequence of an act of true passion such as the run of Pheidippides, whatever course it took, is that onlookers should react with wonderment to what was achieved by a human being. Even today, we still marvel at Pheidippides’ remarkable feat and we are roused to admiration and occasionally to awe by the efforts of those who seek to emulate his triumph nearly two and a half thousand years later.

“And so it is with Stonehenge. Whether or not we consciously recognize the process, we still stand gazing at a monument, which, if it possesses anything, retains the power to evoke wonderment among us. We may not know the names of those who built it and we may know next to nothing about the precise degree of exertion and labour involved, but we recognize that our ancestors chose to make a truly colossal effort over a long period of time and stoically endured hardship in expectation of something wonderful as a reward for their efforts. In brief, we still appreciate the scattered remnants of an act of true passion when we see it, even if the event itself took place thousands of years ago.”

Back to the main theme of my post. The third chapter of my unpublished book was dedicated to an intimate study of Geoffrey of Monmouth, author of Historia Regum Britanniae, or The History of the Kings of Britain, in which he described in precise detail how Stonehenge was built and how it came to be built. I long ago lost count of how many times I went into minute and exhaustive detail about all this in the pages of Eternal Idol, so I won’t bother repeating any of the material or arguments. However, in the unpublished book to which I’m making reference here, I estimated that the odds of Geoffrey of Monmouth being right in his assertions through mere chance were something like 1,555,200 to one, although I believe this is an insanely conservative estimate and its inner workings will be obvious to anyone who’s chosen to familiarise themselves with the details of the subject matter.

I’m no statistician, but even if I’m 99% wrong, which I very much doubt, then Geoffrey still had a less than one in fifteen thousand likelihood of correctly ascertaining the origins of Stonehenge by chance, which surely means that any sane, reasonable or scientific person should consider that another agency was responsible for Geoffrey being correct. And just before I come to my main point, what of the name of this man? Geoffrey of Monmouth? I would say it’s inescapable that Geoffrey had some strong link with this town, regardless of what form this link took. Perhaps he was born there, or perhaps he was educated there, as was I in the 1970s. There are numerous other possibilities, but to put it in its most basic form, Geoffrey of Monmouth was disturbingly accurate about Stonehenge and its origins as far back as 1136 AD, while this great man’s name is a clear testament to a significant connection he had with the town of Monmouth.

Imagine my intense surprise, therefore, when I read this intriguing article in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, in which a number of eminent archaeologists of my acquaintance express their belief that the bluestones were moved from West Wales to Stonehenge by a land route, which passed with a stone’s throw of what is now the town of Monmouth.

Who could ever have imagined such a thing? That what was effectively Stonehenge itself once laboriously passed within spitting distance of a place intimately connected with a man who later wrote with such insight about how and why the monument was moved? In a land that the Romans later described as belonging to the Silures tribe, people whose name may well have meant “The Men of the Stones” or something similar. I’ve found all these details and many more to be engrossing for decades, for reasons I’m sure I needn’t spell out, but it seems I’m alone in this. Nowhere will you find a mention, let alone an examination, of these strange matters; the archaeologists are resolutely not discussing them, nor is a single member of the “online” Stonehenge community, but I’m not complaining – far from it.

One day, I will explore this matter in the most minute detail in a book I’m currently working on, which is provisionally entitled Hidden in the Hills, which deals with this and with related matters. Until such time as I’ve completed it, you are all of course at liberty to look into the matter for yourselves and to draw your own conclusions.

And finally, in case anyone reading this has the slightest doubt about what I’ve written, or about the title I’ve chosen to given it, here’s an entirely apposite quote from Carl Sagan, one of the finest scientific minds Mankind has ever produced:

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”
[Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980)]

Dennis Price, M.ICOMOS

Posted in Antiquities, Dead Poets, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stonehenge, Writing | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Echoes of War

My mind is still reeling from watching the commemorations to mark one hundred years since the end of The Great War. I don’t believe that it’s possible not to be moved by the pictures and stories that were paraded before us, but while I would have liked to add some small, meaningful observation to the proceedings, I found it impossible to say anything that has not been said countless times before by others.

I was however transfixed by the faces of dead men and women produced by Pages of the Sea, but rather than describe this wonderful site, I would urge you to explore it for yourself. I found the contemplation of the images of these long-dead people to be terribly moving and they stayed with me long I’d turned off my television and laptop screens.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written about such nebulous matters, but the work of our gifted and dedicated modern artists put me in mind of a passage from Tacitus, describing what was at the time the apocalyptic rebellion by Boadicea in Britain:

“While the Britons were preparing to throw off the yoke, the statue of victory, erected at Camulodunum, fell from its base, without any apparent cause, and lay extended on the ground with its face averted, as if the goddess yielded to the enemies of Rome. Women in restless ecstasy rushed among the people, and with frantic screams denounced impending ruin. In the council-chamber of the Romans hideous clamours were heard in a foreign accent; savage howlings filled the theatre, and near the mouth of the Thames the image of a colony in ruins was seen in the transparent water; the sea was purpled with blood, and, at the tide of ebb, the figures of human bodies were traced in the sand. By these appearances the Romans were sunk in despair, while the Britons anticipated a glorious victory…”

I personally believe these reports of terrifying supernatural events, as I’ve studied such things for decades and what Tacitus had to say has the ring of truth to it, as a personal opinion. But it doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong, because I find it amazing that just under two thousand years ago in Britain, in conjunction with what would be fearful bloodshed, the least of which was the destruction of a Roman legion, “the figures of human bodies were traced in the sand” near the mouth of the Thames.

The likenesses of men and women were created on our beaches in our own time by living men and women, but some invisible hand was responsible for what was seen here in Britain by the Romans all those centuries ago. I seem to remember reading that Holst composed Mars from The Planets before the First World War, something that astonished others at the time who felt that he could only have captured the conflict so memorably in music after the event, so perhaps for Holst and earlier, for the Romans staring in horror at the signs and portents appearing in their midst, they experienced what Thomas Campbell wrote about in his poem Lochiel’s Warning:

“Coming events cast their shadow before.”

Posted in Antiquities, Current Affairs, Dead Poets, Magic & the Supernatural, Mourning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Incomparable Rowley Irlam, Three Times Emmy Award Winner for Game of Thrones

On the night of Saturday, September the eighth, 2018, Rowley Irlam achieved a world first and thereby made history when he collected his third consecutive Emmy Award at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles. Rowley accepted this prestigious and unprecedented third award as the Stunt Co-ordinator on Series 7 of Game of Thrones, which gifted us all such inforgettable scenes as the fire-breathing dragons attacking a terrified Lannister army and the vicious battle with hordes of the dead beyond the Wall, on an iced-over lake.

There were many other such scenes, of course, but as far as I’m aware, no stuntman or stunt co-ordinator has ever before been nominated three times in succession for an Emmy Award, and no one has ever succeeded in wining this stunning hat trick. In previous seasons, Rowley worked on the Battle of Hardhome and the equally momentous Battle of the Bastards, although these two events were the highlights of many other action scenes that left a global audience gaping with awe and desperate for more.

It is surely obvious from the evidence of our eyes that Rowley thoroughly deserves winning this stratospheric triple accolade. I am generally not a fan of the fantasy genre, but I will freely admit that I long ago fell under the spell of Game of Thrones, presumably for the same reasons that tens of millions of others have done. The murderous, labyrinthine plots reflect an interest I’ve long had in the courts of Imperial Rome and in the struggles witnessed by Machiavelli in Renaissance Italy, but there are countless other mesmerising aspects to the show, the most prominent of which are surely the breath-taking action scenes that range from one-on-one confrontations to full battle scenes.

I’ve written about this elsewhere and I will doubtless do so again, but for those of you who weren’t aware of this, I first had the honour, the privilege and the sheer pleasure of meeting Rowley as far back as the summer of 1990. For the past two years, I’d worked on what was at the time the world’s only touring mediaeval jousting tournament as William of Pembroke, the Earl Marshall and principal speaking part on this attraction.

My time there had been enjoyable, but it had taken its toll, so I was only lured back in 1990 by the prospect of performing in Russia after we’d toured Finland in the summer. I was late to the game, as I’d been unavoidably detailed elsewhere, so I ended up flying to Finland with my cousin Chris and my friend Dominic, who has also gone on to make a notable mark as a stuntman and stunt co-ordinator.

Be that as it may, one of the new knights waiting for us in the “Land of a Thousand Lakes” was Rowley, and I instantly took to him. After the summer’s tour of Scandinavia and Russia ended, I stayed in touch with him and I could write a small book on this, but for now, I want to do nothing more than dwell on his incredible accomplishment in 2018. It didn’t come out of nowhere, because if you care to pore over his vast list of credits on the Internet Movie Database, you’ll see that Rowley’s work has graced our screens in some of the world’s most memorable, thrilling and enjoyable productions for over two decades.

So, Rowley, my old friend, I trust you enjoy celebrating with Nichola and with your children, while I also hope you don’t come down from this exalted plane of Dionysiac consciousness for many weeks to come. I look forward to buying you a drink one day and telling you in person how impressed I am, but for now, I’ll raise a glass to you and leave you to your chosen festivities. Congratulations, sir, and if I had a hat on, I’d take it off to you in a heartbeat.


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Blueboy – A Doggy Tale

In the middle of March, 2016, roughly a week after I’d fallen so ill and while I was still struggling badly in hospital, my wonderful dog Blueboy had to be put to sleep. I swore to myself that if it was the last thing I did, as far as writing was concerned, I would construct a memorial for him that went some way to doing him and his life justice. I’ve deliberately written as much as I can about other matters since leaving hospital; chronicling my difficult recovery, corresponding with others via email, making regular posts on Facebook and engaging with others as best I can, in an attempt to be sociable and to be a meaningful part of the real world that continuously thrives around me.

At the beginning of the year, I even made a halfway decent start on an entirely new, Stonehenge-related project that I remain extremely excited about, but with the best will in the world, this faltered after the fire that destroyed my home, so I’m building up to restarting it and writing it properly.

For now, it’s high time that I found some discipline and put pen to paper in everlasting memory of this wonderful dog, which a benevolent Fate brought into my life in 2001. There is no time like the present, so I intend to start the moment I’ve published this post and I look forward to being happily occupied for around a month, turning a vivid gallery of mental images into print, so that Blueboy can live on as a literary doggy hero, as well as in the form of his loving spirit and the glorious memories that trail in his wake.

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The Ever-Lasting Allure of the Hesperides

Over the course of roughly a decade, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the ancient Greek myth of the Garden of the Hesperides, a wonderful retreat somewhere at the western edge of the known world in ancient times. I had hoped by now to have been able to give a detailed explanation for my deep interest in this story, as I had planned to include it in the pages of a book I started writing at the beginning of this year, but it was not to be.

A fire in early March destroyed my home, along with just about everything it once contained, including my beloved, extensive library, while this conflagration brought my writing to an abrupt end. I shall resume this enterprise as soon as I’m able, so in the meantime, I shall simply explain, for the benefit of those who might be unaware of this place, that this blissful garden was tended by the Hesperides, the daughters of Night.

Different ancient sources provide other parents for the Hesperides apart from Night, one being Erebus, or Darkness, but these tantalising creatures were known as Daughters of the Evening and also Nymphs of the golden light of sunset. This subject is rarely far from my mind these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that I was stunned and enchanted earlier today when I saw the photograph at the top of this post.

It was taken by my childhood friend Bizzy Mitchell on one of the Greek islands, so I’m extremely grateful to her for giving me permission to reproduce her magical image of a Greek sunset here. The picture is enchanting in its own right, but I was literally spellbound when I found myself gazing at the physical embodiment of a mystery that has captivated me for ten years.

One day, more will follow, but until then, I shall leave you with some words penned by the genius William Wordsworth:

“And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man…”
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John Dillinger Died For You

A few days ago, I belatedly discovered that some magazines I’d bought as far back as the late 1980s had somehow survived the conflagration that destroyed my home in early March of this year. I’d almost forgotten that I still had these fascinating, detailed publications, as it had been so long since I’d browsed through them, so it was a double delight to look through this collection yesterday afternoon:  along with me, they’d survived the fire and I’d not lost myself in their pages for a few decades at least.

Out of a gallery of monsters, the one face that leapt out at me was that of John Dillinger, described succinctly on the front of edition 46 of Murder Casebook as “The 1930s outlaw who blazed a trail of destruction across the USA.” Many other men and some women of the time were in the same often murderous line of business as Dillinger, but he was unusual inasmuch as he seems to have adopted a life of crime as a result of boredom, rather than because of a background or upbringing that had visited deprivation or sustained abuse upon him as a child.

Many men secretly like to think of themselves as outlaws or desperadoes, daydreaming of sticking the finger to The Man while keeping the company of other like-minded outsiders. Some people will be forever condemned to seek sanctuary and release in their imaginations, on account of being tied to a life of stultifying boredom and frustration, or else they will experience a vicarious pleasure through following the lives of other more blessed souls in rock bands, or in what I’ll call other creative collectives. However, whether it’s the aforementioned cases of wishful thinking or else the impressive, documented track record of bands like the Rolling Stones, they all pale into insignificance compared to the reality of the Dillinger Gang.

At the tender age of twelve, Dillinger himself became the leader of a gang in Indianapolis that went by the fearsome name of the Dirty Dozen, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the collection of men he led in later life were sometimes known simply as the “Terror Gang”. While I don’t approve of the slaying of policemen –  or of anyone else, for that matter – it is only fair to observe that while Dillinger kept company with rabid killers such as Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger himself was never convicted of murder.

Despite this, the official record states that he was executed by two FBI men named Zarkovich and O’Neill in an alley in Chicago, although it quickly became apparent that the corpse in the morgue had brown eyes, whereas Dillinger’s were blue-grey, while the dead body had none of the identifying scars of Dillinger, either. There were other equally striking differences, leaving no doubt that a lookalike or double going by the name of Jimmie Lawrence had been gunned down by law enforcement that evening in 1934, but literally dozens of men all over the USA at the time had been arrested as Dillinger.

A man by the name of Ralph Alsman from Indiana was taken into custody no less than six times, while Detective Frank Slattery of the Chicago police bore such as close resemblance to Dillinger that he was nearly shot on the night of the death of Dillinger, or Jimmie Lawrence, by another FBI agent. I could continue in this vein for hours yet, as there were so many bizarre and intriguing aspects to Dillinger’s life, purported death, burial encased in concrete and convincing survival under another name.

However, I shall resist the temptation to continue writing here and draw to what I hope is a graceful close. Perhaps it’s wrong to eulogise this man, as I accept I may have done in this short essay, but Dillinger was never convicted of murder and even in his own day, he was widely regarded as a ‘Robin Hood’ figure, as distinct from one of his many murderous peers, such as the aforementioned Pretty Boy Floyd or Al Capone.

When Dillinger robbed banks, he was courteous and even respectful to those he held up, whereas nearly a century down the line, the banks and other financial institutions who have been shamelessly robbing us possess nothing of the late Dillinger’s grace; little wonder that one branch of the John Dillinger Died For You Society flourishes to this day.


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Game of Thrones Prequel and Livy’s Early History of Rome

A little while ago, I was delighted to discover that one of the few books to survive the inferno that destroyed my home in early March this was Livy’s magnificent and engrossing ‘Ab Urbe Condita‘, a volume I don’t believe I’ve read since my children were born, over two decades ago. Ive been pleased to find any books from my former library, but a few are more special than others and this is one of them.

Furthermore, by a happy coincidence, I’ve just read that the makers of a Game of Thrones are to make an as-yet untitled prequel, set thousands of years before the first series, at the end of the golden age of heroes. It has long been known that the genius creator of Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin, drew inspiration from the murky and frequently lethal courts of imperial Rome for his engrossing tales of intrigue, treachery and murder in Westeros, so anyone with an interest in these matters can delve, for example, into De vita Caesarum by Suetonius if they wish to enjoy historical accounts of the fictional lies and carnage that has graced our screens in recent years.

I understand that the prequel to Game of Thrones will deal with such matters as the founding of House Stark and House Lannister. Livy’s wonderful book, dealing with the earliest days of Rome, likewise deals with the founding of ancient clans, families, military orders, religious rites and Rome itself, so I would suggest that if you wish to be entertained by such things prior to the final season of Game of Thrones and its greatly anticipated prequels being broadcast, you may well enjoy perusing a detailed history that an ancient author painstakingly put together around 2,000 years ago.

This book also tells of the building of the Poemerium, the ‘Great Wall’ that separated Rome from the less sanctified territories beyond, but there are all manner of other wonders contained in its pages. And finally, it is simply impossible for me to create a post like this without posting a photo of me and my great friend Rowley Irlam, who has deservedly won two Emmy awards for his breathtaking work as the Stunt Co-Ordinator on Game of Thrones.

Hear Me Roar“.


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Ordeal by Fire – Surviving an Inferno

At roughly 6.30 on the evening of Thursday, March 8th, I was lazing in my study in my home in the village of Sowton, alone and happily lost in browsing through some book or document, as I had been thousands of times before over the course of the ten years I’d spent living in this rural idyll just south of Exeter. I was in a particularly good mood, even by my unrelentingly cheerful standards, because it was almost exactly two years to the day since I’d fallen so ill that, for a week, I had wanted to die, during which time I lost my beloved dog Blueboy, then I went on to have major heart surgery at the Royal Brompton hospital in London.

My psychological recovery from these assorted ills had been long and painful, lasting over eighteen months, but by the night of March 8th 2018, I had long felt able to consign these sorrows to the past, while simultaneously rejoicing in my daughter Tanith’s recent twenty-first birthday. While I was lost in happy thoughts such as these and engrossed in whatever book or document held my attention in the subdued light of the early evening, I was startled by a thunderous hammering at my front door, so I immediately dropped what I was reading and hurried into the hall, wondering what on Earth had caused this unprecedented uproar.

When I yanked open the door and gazed out into the gathering dusk, I saw Lesley, a lady I’d had the pleasure of knowing ever since I first moved into Sowton Village, as she regularly kept her horses in the various fields around my home. She shouted to me that the roof was on fire, so I hurried outside and stared up at the thatch that covered my home and the other cottage adjoining it.

The roof looked just as it always had done, but I was appalled to see dirty yellow flames like angry sprites dancing around the base of the chimney of my neighbours’ home, at the opposite end of the conjoined buildings from where I lived. There was also an ominous red glow, pulsing deep beneath the thatch where it met the brick of the stout chimney stack and it was a sight that temporarily rooted me to the spot, but I managed to tear my horrified gaze away after a few seconds and I hurried back indoors to ring my wife Gill, who was at work. There was no time for any niceties or preamble, so I bluntly informed her that the building was on fire, then I rang off.

Six years before, I’d witnessed four thatched cottages at the far end of the village burn down after a fire had started in or around another chimney protruding through another thatched roof. It had been a major incident, with something like fifty fire appliances assisting, but despite this huge amount of specialist machinery and the very best efforts of scores of brave, skilled fire fighters, the blaze around the chimney spread relentlessly, resulting in the total destruction of my neighbours’ homes. I had a sickening premonition that an identical fate awaited my own home that night and I was painfully aware that we had no contents insurance, because it was prohibitively expensive in a thatched property and I’d not worked since spending a month in hospital, then finally leaving in early April, in 2016.

For a few minutes, perhaps, I stood in the road, hoping to see the blaze contained, watching the first fire fighters to arrive trying to extinguish the flames erupting from my neighbours’ roof at the far end of the building from mine. Very soon, however, one of the firemen strode up to me and advised me to start emptying my home of anything I considered valuable, so I hurried back inside to my living room, wondering where to start.

I was sufficiently composed to search in a wooden cabinet in the living room for a collection of family and other photographs, which were spirited away from me by helping hands, but after that, the most accurate description I can supply is to say that my mind went blank. Over the years, I had lost count of the times I’d watched one or other quiz programmes on television, rolling my eyes in derision when some hapless contestant couldn’t answer the easiest of questions, whether on general knowledge or else on their specialist chosen subjects. Now, however, when everything I owned in the world was at stake and with the sands of time running out with indecent haste, I found myself blinking and shaking my head like an idiot, unable to answer the simplest questions put to me by the firemen, or by Tim and Kristen, two of my neighbours who had – as far as I was concerned – inexplicably appeared in my living room and who were patiently asking me what I’d like them to do to help me.

I wasn’t frightened, but I felt as if I were wading through waist-deep treacle while everyone else around me moved briskly and with purpose. Firemen navigated the narrow, winding stairs to retrieve what they could from the bedrooms belonging to my two children, who were away at university in London and Swansea at the time, while they also saved some clothes from my bedroom.

Other firemen busied themselves downstairs by removing two large propane containers from against the wall outside my back door, which would have made the village look like a minor version of Dresden or Hamburg during World War Two had the creeping flames got to them. The firemen bundled other belongings from my living room outside and while I’ll never know precisely who removed what, I will be forever grateful to both Kristen and Tim, two of my wonderful neighbours, because without them, many more of my personal possessions would have been turned to ash before my puffed and rosy-red eyes that awful night.

I can’t remember every movement that was made by the people in and around the house while it was speedily consumed by the pitiless flames, but I will never forget the last few minutes I spent in my study. I was in a daze as questing tendrils of acrid smoke began to appear, so I found myself staring in anguish at all the many wonders I’d collected over the course of decades, unable to decide what to try to save from among all the treasures and curiosities that were piled from floor to ceiling.

A number of my precious belongings were indeed rescued, thanks to the valiant and determined efforts of the firemen, so I have some clothes, a coat stand, my filing cabinet with all its invaluable documents, a harp, an electric guitar and a few dozen books, perhaps, although I’ve not yet been in a position to make a final and detailed tally of everything that survived. However, there soon came a point when the smoke in the room threatened to become overpowering, so one of the firemen ordered me out in a way that brooked no argument, telling one of his colleagues to escort me.

Once outside, the thick pall of smoke was even worse than it had been inside the doomed cottage; I’d experienced a capricious wind blowing smoke from barbecues and bonfires in my direction for a few seconds many times over the years, but this was a different matter altogether. I found myself fighting for breath, with my eyes burning and pouring with tears, until I eventually wandered into clear, clean air among some of my former neighbours, who had gathered on the dark road in a mournful, shocked group, to bear witness to the destruction by fire of my beloved former home.

Years before, the residents had voted against having street lights put in place at the entrance to the village where I lived, so I found myself slowly making my way through an eerie landscape illuminated by a sickly orange hue as the thatch blazed, and by the flashing blue lights of the fire engines that had managed to make their way into the narrow road opposite the burning buildings. I wasn’t feeling at all well, so I said as much to a fireman at a control centre and an ambulance was summoned. It was impossible for the ambulance crew to drive their vehicle to collect me, because the narrow road was blocked by huge hoses, ladders, firemen and two fire engines, while the flames had become so intense that in any event, the temperature in the road outside my home was unbearable and dangerous.

After an ambulance was called, I was sat on the hard, wet ground a few yards away from a growing inferno that raged and whirled around my home, despite the best efforts of the courageous, accomplished firemen to extinguish it. I found myself staring in disbelief at the unstoppable destruction that was being wrought by the intense flames, then Mike, one of my neighbours, appeared. Six years before, I had looked on helplessly as the thatched cottage belonging to him and his wife had been destroyed along with three other adjoining homes and it was a depressing sight; now he leant over me and quietly advised me, with the voice of bitter experience, that no good could come of watching the flames take my home and belongings.

Hardly were the words out of his mouth than I was told that the ambulance had arrived, so the firemen had to forge a path parallel to the village’s only road, through the uneven, dark wet fields and over a few barbed wire fences before they guided me back onto the twisting road, at a point beyond the blaze. I made my way into an old compound by the entrance to the village that had been taken over by a mass of emergency vehicles and their occupants, the whole busy scene lit up by the huge flames that were consuming my home and leaping into the night sky just a hundred feet or so away.

I soon found the ambulance and once inside, I was immediately subjected to a barrage of tests by Netty and Sarah, the ambulance crew, who were as attentive, kind, caring and professional as it’s possible to imagine. All things considered, I seemed well enough, but it was clear that I was suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation, so they decided to take me to the casualty department of the nearby Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, where I’d been treated for a life-threatening condition almost exactly two years before. My wife Gill was dropped on the hill leading out of the village, next to the car in which she’d driven back from her workplace, where she acted as a senior nurse tending to old people; I then lay back on a stretcher inside the ambulance, hooked up to various monitors and watched over by Sarah, as Netty drove the vehicle to the hospital.

A minute or so into the journey, I remember telling Sarah how intensely grateful I was to her and to her colleagues in the emergency services for taking such good care of me. I then asked her if she could please arrange matters so that when we arrived at hospital, I didn’t end up on a ward next to the two poisoned Russians, Yulia and Sergei Skripal, as I didn’t want to worsen whatever state I was already in by running the risk of getting splashed with nerve agent. Without trying to reconstruct the hopelessly one-sided exchange that followed in the speeding ambulance, Sarah was politely bemused, because at some point imperceptible to me, I’d become convinced that I was going to Salisbury Hospital, almost certainly because I’d lived with my family on Salisbury Plain for a decade prior to our move to Exeter.

I’d had cause to take my two young children to the Accident and Emergency Department many times while we were on Salisbury Plain, because of various cuts and bruises they had had suffered over the years, as well as unpleasant bouts of croup that forced me to drive them there by night from time to time. I don’t remember when the transition occurred in my consciousness or subconscious to believing I was back in Salisbury rather than in Exeter, nor do I remember it happening, but it was real and in my mildly deranged state, the prospect of being on the same ward as two poor souls who had been poisoned by such a toxic substance was disturbing.

When the ambulance pulled up and the doors opened to reveal what was unquestionably the A & E department of the Royal Devon and Exeter hospital, I was forced to accept the reality of my situation and it was disconcerting to have to acknowledge that my mind had somehow wandered across the south of England, from Exeter to Salisbury and back. My humour was rapidly improved, however, by the immediate ministrations of a Spanish nurse and an African doctor, who ran another series of tests on me and who comprehensively checked me out in the most kindly, reassuring manner imaginable.

Despite the fact that my mind was reeling with the strain of coming to terms with the ongoing destruction of my home by fire just a few miles away, I couldn’t help but feel a lot better because of being treated so well by the wonderful, conscientious staff our NHS is blessed with. As soon as I’d been given an all-clear, I hauled my stinking, smoke-stained clothes and boots back on, then hurried out of the cubicle, while the wails from a child and from a few old people who’d been brought in for treatment made me feel terribly guilty, as I felt their needs were far greater than mine.

After I was discharged, Gill drove in silence through the hot, baleful night back to Sowton, where we made our way once more into the compound filled with emergency vehicles and workers. After seeing harrowing reports of fires on television, most notably the recent Grenfell Tower disaster, I’d often heard of people being left with nothing more than the clothes on their back, but it was almost impossible to come to terms with this reality now that it had happened to me, rather than to unfortunate others somewhere else in the country. A Red Cross vehicle staffed by volunteers became a shelter for us for half an hour or so and I deeply regret not being able to recall the names of the two young men and one young woman who were so hospitable, kind and understanding to us, giving us small bags of toiletries and some clothes, which I found myself wearing for the next few weeks.

I sprawled on some seats in the Red Cross vehicle, disconsolately munching on a few burgers I’d been given from the firemen’s on site canteen, as I’d suddenly realised I was ravenously hungry. A few minutes later, a young lady with shoulder length blonde hair and a concerned expression appeared at the open doors, politely asking to speak to me, as she’d been directed to the vehicle by others in the compound when she enquired about the whereabouts of the people who’d survived the fire. She told me that her name was Harriet Bradshaw and that she was a reporter from BBC Spotlight, so I heaved myself out of my seat and stepped outside to talk to her.

I’m keenly aware that many people have a low opinion of journalists, but I can only say that I’ve met, spoken and worked with forty to fifty of these people over the last thirty years, including a few editors and chief reporters; in all that time, I’ve only met two of their number that I didn’t warm to. For her part, I thought that Harriet was polite, understanding and sympathetic, while the truth is that I needed little if any prompting to speak to her in front of a camera about my ordeal by fire.

Rather than viewing Harriet or the media she was part of as being intrusive in any way, I positively welcomed the opportunity to rail against a malevolent Fate and in the process, to let as many people as possible know about my plight. I don’t think anything I said was unique, particularly memorable or of a high quality, because I seem to remember that the best bit the channel used from my sustained polemic was a brief section in which I lamented the many physical things that I’d lost to the hungry flames. I saw Harriet and a different cameraman again the next day, when I wandered around the smoking ruins of my former home, and while I’m not a vain person, I undoubtedly looked like a bedraggled sack of shit, which I suppose is hardly surprising given the unusual circumstances.

It all turned out to be worth it, though, because I feel my natural good humour and stoicism came through when I counted all my many blessings and thanked my neighbours and everyone else who had helped on the night, expressing the fervent wish that I could give them all a huge hug and this, happily, was the section that BBC Spotlight chose to use when it broadcast the follow-up to its report of the previous night on the dreadful fire. Thank you for all this, Harriet, because your warm heart and your many other fine qualities helped me to live through and overcome what was undoubtedly one of the worst days that a malign Fate has ever sent my way.

My account of the night of the fire and of the days and weeks that followed in its wake must by necessity be extremely short, because a thousand and one other details in my memory are fighting for recognition even as I write this. The day may come when I commit them to print, but for now, there are three matters that I must deal with, albeit briefly.

Firstly, I’ve heard it said many times over the last few weeks that experiencing a fire is like enduring a bereavement. Certainly, I can say with the voice of grim experience that the profound shock of losing your home with just a few minutes’ warning has a horrible finality about it, much like witnessing a funeral pyre, but there is far more to the matter than just this and it’s something I intend to write about in depth another time. For now, I feel as if the destruction by fire of my locus amoenus – the beautiful cottage at the foot of a green hill, by lazy streams, sprawling meadows and lush woodlands – marked the death of the idyllic time I was privileged to spend there, while I sometimes feel as if I’m a ghost wandering in this landscape, rather than a flesh and blood human being.

As for details of this unsettling, occasional perception that I’m a phantom as a result of this fire, I am missed and welcomed by my former neighbours and while I’m in their company, I recall the many happy times I spent in their midst, but I appear in my former home less and less often, as I am now called to dwell in another place that can’t be seen from the village. I miss Sowton terribly for all its many wonderful features that I’ve written about over the years, while I was delighted to watch my two children grow up there in a state of blissful happiness and it’s also where my dog Blueboy spent the majority of his time here on Earth.

Now, however, I am forced to accept that I’ll never return there to live and after being sheltered at the homes of some of my relatives, for which I’m intensely grateful, I’m now living under a new roof. I can’t envisage a time when I won’t be drawn back to my former home in Sowton, with its enchanting walks and vistas, as well as the neighbours I was blessed to have, but the blunt fact is that my future appearances there will become increasingly fleeting until such time as I eventually fade into history. A bit like a ghost.

Secondly, I don’t think of myself as materialistic, but over the last few months I’ve come to think that unless you’re so removed from the concept of prized, personal possessions that you live your life like some nomadic, twenty-first century hunter-gatherer, a fire such as the one I’ve briefly described is inevitably going to rob you of many things you hold dear and cause some degree of heartache in the process. I’ve lost many hundreds of books and collected correspondence dating back to the early 1970s, as well as an irreplaceable collection of photographs taken on my many travels around Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Russia. I’ve lost paintings, manuscripts, music books and a few hundred CDs, some of which still sit in a melted pile in the fire-ravaged hell-hole that was once my study. I’ve lost my collection of gargoyles, green men, reference books and a collection of roughly sixty books dealing with British hauntings, which particularly hurts right now as I’ve been planning a detailed project on this subject that’s already attracted some interest from the people who are in a position to make it happen.

I could go on for literally hours, flinching at the loss of so many of the treasures I’d collected in my time, but there are other objects I miss for different reasons. For instance, when he was a toddler, my son Jack gave me a baseball cap he’d decorated under the supervision of one of his teachers and while the writing on the peak was unintelligible to anyone else, I knew that the letters spelled out the words BEST DAD and I’d thought this would go with me to the grave. Instead, its ashes lie inextricably and irretrievably mingled with those of so many other things I held dear, while just about everything that my son and daughter had worked so hard for to buy for themselves, such as clothes, shoes, posters, computer equipment, music, furniture and others were consumed by the flames, as were the presents that we were planning to give my daughter for her twenty-first birthday.

It’s a dismal list, for sure, and it’s sometimes hard to bear, but I console myself with the certain knowledge that I’m not alone and that countless others are far worse off than I am; or to put it another way, I am a bit older, but a great deal wiser as a result of the fire and of everything that’s followed it. I now know precisely how it feels to be robbed of your dwelling-place and to become homeless in the space of just a few shocking minutes. I now know how it feels to have no clothes but those you were wearing when you fled disaster. I now know how it feels to lament all the physical possessions you’ve lost, from things like rare books or presents for your daughter’s twenty-first birthday to more prosaic belongings, such as your shoes, boots, shorts or flip-flops.

I have been blessed with the light of understanding of other profound matters. A friend of mine by the name of Naomi very kindly set up a Just Giving page not long after the fire and it has been like manna from heaven to receive warm-hearted financial support at time like this, just when things looked at their most bleak. Unless I’d experienced all this for myself, I would never have guessed how much the good wishes from other people counted for, but they’ve made a huge difference. Some people have donated anonymously to the Just Giving page while others, who have admitted they don’t know me, have helped out simply for the purpose of doing a good thing in the world. Still others have written of their sorrow for my circumstances or of their admiration for my optimistic, stoic attitude, but whether these messages comprised just a few words, sentences or paragraphs, they have all meant the world to me, really. Thank you all so much, from the bottom of my bruised heart.

I’m down, but not out. I’m bloodied, but unbowed. I am intensely grateful to all my family, friends, neighbours and to many strangers, such as those who have sent gifts and of course to all the fire fighters, nurses, doctors, the Red Cross and all the other selfless people who work for our emergency services. I am grateful to all my new neighbours, here in the centre of Exeter, for accepting me and my family into their midst in such a warm and welcoming fashion. The fire may have robbed me of my home, but it didn’t harm so much as a hair on anyone’s head, so I am extremely mindful of this as well, because the alternatives of terrible injury or death are too horrible to contemplate.

I was powerless to stop the fire in its tracks, but I have the choice of how I react to this terrible misfortune, so I choose to ponder all the many, many reasons that I should consider myself supremely blessed, rather than dwell on what I’ve lost.

I am a survivor.

I am the Phoenix rising from the flames.

Our Just Giving Page.

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