Tales of Faringdon: The Duck Trophy

Faringdon in Oxfordshire is the Navel of the World. We know that because Oxford lies to the North and Swindon is somewhere down South. The navel of that navel, the nail about which the whole catherine wheel of the Milky Way turns, is the Portwell Bar.
It was created when Noel the taxi driver, back when he wore a beard, staggered out of the Bell, his mighty staff in his hand. He wasn’t up to staggering along to the Red Lion, or this being ancient times, the Volunteer. He definitely wasn’t up to staggering to the Folly, at the edge of town, where the light ends.
Okay, so he probably could have made it to the Crown. But he didn’t. Nobody knows why.
He needed another bar. One that would understand needs he didn’t know he had.
He threw down his staff. It bounced against the wall under the Thai. And where it bounced there was seeded a bar. And then it bounced a couple more times, and we got a series of coffee shops, because his staff knew how to put things to him gently.
Noel saw the Bar, that night. And he was the first to see it. But he did not enter. Because the steps had not then been made.
But that’s another story.

Inside the Portwell Bar there’s a trophy cabinet. And in that cabinet are trophies. Not as many as the cabinet size suggests should be. There’s the Pub Six Cup, given each year to the team that can best heave hay bills over a bar, shirtless, while making the sound ‘huwwwarrrrrghhh.’ There’s a golden beaker inscribed with a squiggle, as if the engraver was suddenly distracted by, say, a flying hay bale.
And beside these is a plastic bath duck, laid carefully on its side.
And it was this that caught my attention one night.
Martin the Landlord, and Simon and Guy and I were sitting at the top table, the table that Rick would sit at in Casablanca. The others were playing Liar Dice, a game imported from Ancient Greece by Huw, who was there with the rest of his Pantheon. The purpose of the game, besides whatever ceremonial function it may have in the modern worship of Huw, is not to have to talk all night. So I wanted to distract them, because I wanted to talk, and I realised I didn’t know what the duck meant.
‘It’s funny you should ask,’ says Martin, who’s the sort of Landlord who can nod like you asking where the toilets is is the deepest philosophical question he’s ever heard. ‘And rather quick of you to have noticed it –‘
‘Martin,’ I say, ‘this is the only non-smoking bar in town. I’d come here if you threw bricks at me.’
‘And I might try that. Only joking. What are you having?’
‘The duck is from our golfing holiday,’ says Simon, in the same tone as one would say, rather than the words 'golfing holiday', the words 'tour of the world's finest beers'.
‘Yeah,’ says Guy. ‘Martin’s victim.’
‘It was on the way to the tenth. I was on eleven over par. Nice country.’
Martin once turned round and asked the armed and masked paintball team he was leading ‘now, what are we meant to be doing?’
‘And it was ten o’clock in the morning,’ adds Simon, ‘so, you know, we’d only had a couple.’
‘And I see this duck. On its back. And I have to think for a minute: are ducks like certain kinds of insect? That is, can they get themselves upright if they’re like that? And I see that its leg looks like it might have been injured. It’s at a strange angle.’
Guy sticks his arm out at a strange angle.
‘I once hit a fox with my car,’ says Martin. ‘I didn’t mean to. It was late at night, and there was a thump and I saw it roll away. I didn’t know what it was for a minute. I stopped the car. And it was lying in the road making a terrible sound. I hope I never hear that again. Like a baby crying. And it was going to die. There wasn’t any question of getting it to a vet, though I did think about that. So I got a tire iron from the back of the car, and I walked round to the side of it where it couldn’t see me, because it couldn’t move its head. No, I’ll get these, Simon. I had to psyche myself up to do it in one go, to hit hard enough once so I didn’t have to do it again. And I did that. And when I looked down at this duck, I was thinking about that. So I use my driver to just nudge it-‘
‘Slope,’ says Guy, and he and Simon fall about.
‘And there’s this… you’re making me laugh now… there’s this… slope. I just try to move it, to prop it upright. Only it rolls. Into the lake. It hits the water and goes right under. And never comes up. And so these two got me this duck.’
‘Martin,’ says Guy, ‘I’m just glad you didn’t have to hit it.’
‘Thanks mate,’ says Martin, and he shakes his hand. ‘I appreciate that.’
‘Yeah,’ says Guy, and he drains his pint. ‘The way you were playing, you’d have missed.’

The Man who Loved Sherlock Holmes

I was very impressed by last night's BBC4 documentary about the life and sad death of Richard Lancelyn Green, a leading Sherlock Holmes fan. As a sideline, it explored Holmes fandom, and did so in a very respectful, genuinely interested way. We're talking high geekery: we joined the Sherlockians in costume up an alp, each one of them playing a particular character. But we were invited to get to know them as erudite, informed individuals rather than guffaw. Richard's death was also a testament to his fandom. He'd been fighting for a cache of Conan Doyle's papers to be given to the British Library rather than sold at auction for a couple of million quid, a matter in which he believed he had justice on his side. Genuine and continued pressure was put on him to desist, as attested to by a couple of surprisingly serious journos, and he finally seems to have committed suicide. It's the oldest fan story, in many ways. From school we've invested in the intellectual, convinced that we've made the right choice. So we're especially furious to find that a bullying charisma can win out in the mainstream world, that justice and intellect does not always prevail. Richard, as the documentary pointed out as its ending, gained a vague victory post-mortem, his complaints having driven the serious collectors away, allowing the British Library to purchase much of the material at prices they could afford. I can't help but think there's much more to this story, and will look into it, but in the meantime I want to hail the first mainstream appearance of the Fan As Hero.

The Best of 2005

Personally, this has been an excellent year for me. I completed a lifetime ambition by having a Doctor Who episode broadcast, and made big strides towards the three aims I decided on at the start of the year: a new novel; my own tv series; an American comic book. My new prose agent, Simon Kavanagh, has been friendly and tremendously useful. And I've vastly enjoyed being one of the organisers for our local Arts Festival, having authors such as Brian Aldiss, Gwyneth Jones and Terrance Dicks visiting the town. Having a local bar with many friends just around the corner has become something very important to me, a way I can always cheer myself up. Depression has largely held off this year, chiefly because, I expect, I'm keeping so busy.

Politically and religiously, however, it's been a year that's often made me angry and frustrated. It's hard to work in the media as both an Anglican and a New Labour supporter. One tends to see bigotry and bias, even when it turns out not to be there.

Best news all year has to be this:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/4549626.stm

That is, that gay couples are now able to enter into Civil Partnerships that give them the same legal rights as married couples. It's the kind of progressive legislation that you'd only get under New Labour (of any party that might actually get elected right now), and it's removed a lot of un-neccessary pain from the world. I'd like to see actual marriage for gay couples that want it. There's no possible Christian justification for denying it to them, there's only social tradition, and there's nothing worse than tradition.

Anyway, that news was a ray of sunshine.

This year I've enjoyed reading: well, too many friends to mention. And I've loved getting to know SF fandom, and handing out a Hugo at Worldcon. Stephen Bungay's volumes of military history have also been a joy.

This year's music: Kate Bush's new album Aerial is, at least in the second disc, a return to her absolute best. There's something numinous about Kate at the height of her powers, a sense that she's felt something about the universe that one knows is true on an instinctive level. She seems to be talking directly to me... a feeling that many others share. Also, Saint Etienne's glorious new album Tales From Turnpike House was once more a slice of classic pop with a lot going on under the bonnet. Notably, 'Sidestreets', a song about how it's actually much safer to wander about cities at night than people think it is. There's something one doesn't hear in a pop song every day.

Television: I won't go on about Russell's grand reinvention of Doctor Who here. I shall just raise my hand to include myself in the praise, and look at my shoes about my small bit of it. Veronica Mars was my big new passion of the year. The ultimate outsider hero show, the episode 'Drinking the Kool Aid' being my favourite of many reversals against the tide of television cliche. (Grammar? No, not really.) The nutty cultists turn out to be nicer than the townsfolk. But then, in VM, everyone turns out to be nicer than the realistically drawn, nightmare high school townsfolk.

Film: Serenity, Serenity, bit of King Kong and Serenity again. But why didn't they call it 'The Exciting Rescue With Spaceships and Stuff'? The promotion rather confused the enthusiasm of a few for the interest of the mainstream. That's one reason why us outsider geeks love it. But just for once we also love it (as with Veronica), because it's actually good.

Comics: again, too many to mention, and I've loved getting to know comics fandom through grand chaps like Mark Millar and Andy Diggle. But the work of friends apart, I've been hugely enjoying Gotham Central, New Avengers, Birds of Prey and Lucifer. And I've been really digging the whole Infinite Crisis/Omac run up.

As well as randomly chuntering about what I'm up to in the New Year (that's my next post, looking to the future), I'm going to be putting some fiction online, short stories about a town like my own. I hope your 2006 is as good as my 2005 has been, and thank you for your time. Cheers.

Welcome

This is my first, hesitant attempt at a blog of my own. I intend to talk about my work, my social life, religion and politics. It's the last two that worry me. 2005 has been an extraordinary year for me: my Doctor Who episode was screened; I made big strides in my writing goals; my home life is happy and secure. I hope 2006 will prove the same for you. Happy Christmas and all that, and now give me a little while to work out how all these buttons work...


A low res photo of me. Posted by Picasa