Saturday, June 22, 2013

Haunted Homes

It rained heavily today, and school sports day had to be postponed, leaving me with a bit of time on my hands; so what better way to spend it than browsing amongst all my old books again?

The book pictured left is a great favourite of mine: The Haunted Homes and Family Traditions of Great Britain by John H. Ingram. First published in the early 1880s, this is the fourth edition (1888). I found it years ago (probably decades ago, I think) in a junk shop by the side of a road somewhere in rural Scotland - I don't remember exactly where. This was long before we came to live here, so it must have been on one of our hill-walking trips.

Haunted Homes is a collection of "true" (as opposed to fictional) ghost stories, organised alphabetically by location. The preface declares that the book has not been compiled "with a view of creating un frisson nouveau*, but to serve as a guide to the geography of Ghostland - a handbook to the Haunted Houses of Great Britain."

It also claims to supply exact details where most people can only give a vague account of any particular apparition, ie. it is trying to be as scientific as possible. However, at the end of the preface the author says that if he had ever believed in ghosts, compiling the book would have cured him of "such mental weakness". So I must say I think he is being disingenuous when he claims not to be trying to give his readers a frisson; if he thinks it is all bunk then the only purpose is to entertain!

Anyway, the book is a fascinating read. It includes some fairly well-known "hauntings" such as Glamis Castle and Rainham Hall, but also a host of others that I had never come across before. Some of them are standard fare: misers haunting the hiding-place of their hidden hoard or people appearing to their relatives when they were known to be far away at the time, and later being discovered to have died at the instant of their appearance. Others of the stories are more disturbing.

There is, for example, an entry for a country house coyly described as "Yorkshire: ----- Hall" which has a very creepy little ghost in it. A young woman stayed with some cousins who lived in a mansion in North Yorkshire, in the summer of 1879. Between three and four in the morning she heard her bedroom door open and shut, and then the rustling of some curtains close to the bed. For several minutes the young woman had a strong feeling that she was not alone, and then she saw someone standing at the foot of the bed: "the figure of a little girl in her night-dress - a little girl with dark hair and a very white face." The young woman tried to speak to her, but couldn't. She reports what happened next as follows: "She came slowly up on to the top of the bed, and I then saw her face clearly. She seemed in great trouble; her hands were clasped and her eyes were turned up with a look of entreaty, an almost agonised look. Then, slowly unclasping her hands, she touched me on the shoulder. The hand felt icy cold, and while I strove to speak she was gone."

The young woman's hostess (presumably her aunt) encouraged her to think that the whole thing must have been a very vivid nightmare. It was not until after she had left the house and gone to stay elsewhere that her cousin told her that the apparition of the little girl had been seen by other people on three other occasions, but that the young woman's uncle had forbidden his children from telling her this, because he thought it would frighten her too badly!

The thing that I personally find most chilling about this account is that on all the previous occasions, the little girl in the nightdress with her dark hair had only ever been seen from the back, looking out of the window, running up the staircase, or on one occasion simply standing by the table in a room. The young woman who recounted the story said, "I am the only one that has seen its face."


* a cheap thrill.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Solstice shenanigans

Today (21st June) is of course the summer solstice, a date most people probably associate with press coverage of huge gatherings at Stonehenge, and jokes about Wicker Men on Twitter. The summer solstice always reminds me of something else entirely - my former home town of Bad Münstereifel, in Germany.

I lived in Bad Münstereifel for seven wonderful years, and my first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was inspired by the town, its history and its folk legends. The book is about a series of disappearances that occur in this beautiful but seemingly sleepy little town; the heroine, Pia Kolvenbach, and her friend Stefan are inspired to investigate by the legends of the town, which suggest to them that there is some supernatural explanation behind what is going on. The legends are woven into the narrative and are all genuine local Eifel legends, retold by me. Equally, the locations that feature in the book are all real ones, down to the street names and even the locations of some of the shops and cafes. If you are interested in seeing some of them for yourself, I made a short film about these locations, which is on my YouTube channel.

One of the places that features significantly in the story is the Alte Burg or "old castle" (inventive name, no?) on the Quecken Hill close to the town. Bad Münstereifel actually has two castles, a more recent one which still stands in the town centre and houses a restaurant as well as residential flats, and the old castle, which is pretty much buried in the woods on the hill.

When I first moved to Bad Münstereifel, the old castle was quite difficult to find. It was featured in an out-of-print book called Mauern, Türme and Ruinen but the ruins were buried in deep undergrowth and were barely signposted. The one fairly intact architectural feature is a circular turret, but over the centuries this has gone from standing up out of the earth to being virtually buried in it, so that it takes the form of a pit some metres deep. When I first visited the castle, there was absolutely nothing to stop the unwary visitor from falling in. As the castle itself was off the beaten track, if you had fallen in you would very likely have waited for a long time for rescue.

Since then, the council have placed a cage over the turret to prevent accidents, and erected a nice clear signpost so that you can tell exactly where to find the castle. For me, this spoils the excitement of stumbling on it by yourself, with the added frisson of possibly falling into the turret. But at the time at which the book is set (1999-2000) none of this had been done.

This is what the castle looks like:

Apart from the turret, the most you can pick out are the mossy remains of sections of wall. The castle is over a thousand years old so I suppose it is amazing that anything remains at all! Anyway, the local legend of the "Eternal huntsman" whose ghost rides through the forest at night accompanied by spectral hounds is associated with this castle. 

And now we come to the reason why the summer solstice always reminds me of Bad Münstereifel! 
After I had first visited the old castle, I was bubbling over with the joy of discovery, and desperate to show it off to some of my friends (you have to make your own fun in small towns, you know). Eventually I managed to persuade a friend of mine to come up to the Quecken Hill to see it. 

We made our way through the undergrowth, peered down into the turret, and then wandered down the inside of the north wall (if you can call it a wall; it is more of a ridge covered in trees). And there we found this:

A stone circle! This picture was taken later, in 2010, when we were visiting from our then home in Flanders. When we first saw this circle, it was more complete, and there was a single flat stone in the middle of it. On the stone were the burnt remains of something unidentifiable. 

Evidently someone had been up here holding some kind of ritual! Maybe this shouldn't have surprised me all that much, because there is a Roman temple to the Matrones at nearby Nettersheim, and someone  leaves fruit, flowers and feathers in front of the carved figures of the goddesses. Still, it did strike me as rather creepy. It was obvious that the circle had been built recently, because it was not mossed over, and unlike the tumbledown walls of the castle it was entire. Then I realised that the date was 22nd June. It was the morning after the solstice. 

Thoroughly creeped out, we decided to leave well alone. When my friend related the story to a friend of hers, the friend said in alarm, "You didn't go inside the circle, did you???" I can't say this made me feel any better about the experience (I spent the rest of the day wondering whether I had perhaps gone inside it without noticing or something). Apart from anything else, it was the mysteriousness of the whole thing; the Eifel is a staunchly Catholic area and the castle is a very obscure and desolate spot; I couldn't think who would want to sit up there in the dark like that! 

I have never solved that particular mystery, except in the book, where I have constructed my own solution to it. But that is why the summer solstice always makes me think of Bad Münstereifel. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Princes, dead birds, and vegetative couture

A few days ago, the Bookwitch (who visited me at home recently) blogged about my bookshelves; "they are shelves," she said, "that anyone would enjoy browsing for unexpected – or for that matter, totally expected – books." She also commented on the lack of any discernible shelving system (it's a fair cop, guv), which no doubt contributes pretty heavily to the unexpectedness. Sometimes even I find books I didn't know I had. 

Today I came across a slim volume entitled A wreath of golden blossoms. I was looking for something light to read over lunch and picked this particular book out from its hiding-place between a paperback of The Hot Zone and Allan's Wife (1889 edition). When I looked inside, it had my mother's maiden name printed in large childish letters, so it must have been hers when she was little. There is no publication date but a quick online search suggests the 1930s. I have no idea how or when the book came into my possession but I am sure I wouldn't just have pinched it. 

I have blogged before about old children's books. I am fascinated by them - particularly by the sorts of things that people used to think suitable for kids. Here, for example, is the concluding illustration to a series of little stories about Cock Robin and his mate Jenny Wren:

There is only one grave because Jenny was eaten by a hawk. Robin died of a broken heart shortly afterwards, not before instructing the thrush to turn his beak into a pen nib for the king. Cheerful, no? Well, I didn't think so either...

Later on, we have a dramatised version of The Three Little Pigs, that culminates in this merry scene:

Personally I think Curlytail the pig should be ashamed of himself; doesn't he know that wolves are endangered?

My favourite story in the whole book, however, is undoubtedly Rushy Coat, which, I am informed by a Twitter friend, is of Scots origin (not surprising since the book was published by McDougall's Educational Co. Ltd. of Edinburgh). The heroine is a princess who is turned out of the palace by her evil stepmother and left to die of cold (actually, the more I read of this story, the more I detect its Scottish origins; if you turned a princess out in Perthshire in the winter she would definitely freeze). Luckily the princess is saved from hypothermia by the assistance of an old sheep who tells her to make herself a dress out of rushes. Here she is, in the dress (it looks like spring has arrived at this point, which would make it around June if this year is anything to go by):

Thus attired, the princess looks so hot that she attracts the attention of a passing prince:

"Hell-oo bay-bee."

The wicked stepmother is having none of this, though; she has Rushy Coat brought inside and put to work in the palace kitchens, where she won't attract anyone's eye except perhaps the rats'. Rushy Coat, however, instead of concentrating on making sure her souffles don't sink in the middle, keeps sighing over the Prince. Eventually she hatches a plot to go to church so she can check him out again. 

This is the bit I love. Rushy Coat changes out of her rushes into a totally staggering maxi dress teamed with shoes made of gold, and then she turns to the dinner and tells it to cook itself. 

Wouldn't that be good?! 

Off she goes to church and probably doesn't spend half enough time concentrating on her hymn book. Sure enough, the prince clocks her and all looks rosy. Unfortunately, things almost go pear-shaped as the prince nearly gets married to someone else by accident. He is actually on his way to the wedding when a little bird (yes, really) tells him that his One True Love is stuck in the kitchen.

"What's that, you say? I should be calling it off with duckface here, 
like Hugh Grant in Three Weddings?"

The Prince rides off to check whether the bird is speaking with forked tongue or not, recognises Rushy Coat at once, and they all live happily ever after. Except the girl who got left at the altar, presumably. And the stepmum...

Monday, June 17, 2013

Obsessed, moi?

Over the last few days, I have been pestering members of my family to look for a particular very old photograph that used to belong to my paternal grandfather. I want the photograph because I'd like to blog about it - even if it never comes to light, I'll probably still blog about it, but it would naturally be much nicer if I  had the photo to share.

I have very few photographs of my grandparents before they became grandparents - really just this snap of my paternal grandmother as a young woman (left) and a posed wedding photograph of her and my grandfather. So the photograph I am looking for cannot be in my possession; there is nowhere for it to hide in a collection of two! I have therefore been badgering other people to look amongst their own things. So far nothing has come to light but I am still hoping.

Yesterday evening I was relating the progress (or lack of it) to date to my husband, who looked at me with a slightly quizzical expression and asked me why I was so obsessed with this particular photo - at least, I remember him as asking me why I was so "obsessed"; he remembers himself expressing it a bit more diplomatically - "delusionally fixated" perhaps, or something like that.

I'm not sure what I said at the time but I did think about this for a while after the conversation. I do have a bit of a habit of getting fixated on things. Before this photograph, it was the story of the local minister who was hanged in 1682 for infanticide (I have still not entirely finished being fixated with that but have been a bit sidetracked, not to mention ill last week). Before the minister, it was the Silver and then the Ruby Fairy Books. Hmmm, maybe my husband has a point...

To be honest, I don't really know why I want to lay hands on that photograph so very badly. But over the years I have learnt that these little obsessions always lead somewhere. Not necessarily to the place you thought they were going to take you, but always somewhere interesting.

For example, my lifelong "thing" about the ghost stories of M.R.James took an unexpected turn when we moved to Germany in 2001 and found ourselves living within close travelling distance of Steinfeld Abbey, scene of The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Once I knew that Steinfeld was so close, I couldn't rest until I'd visited it. I wrote an article about it. And then another article. I researched the Steinfeld glass at the headquarters of the Eifel Club in Düren, poring over articles now nearly a century old, and printed in eye-watering Gothic type. I was, for a while, completely obsessed with the topic. Out of that obsession came the question, If it was possible for the Steinfeld glass to vanish for a century and be rediscovered, why shouldn't there be another set of fabulous and priceless mediaeval windows still out there, hidden somewhere? And that was where the idea for The Glass Demon came from.

Come to that, the idea for my very first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, sprouted from a fascination with the folk legends of Bad Münstereifel, where we lived for seven years. When I first developed an interest in those stories, I had no idea of making them into a novel. I was just enthralled by the stories themselves.

I don't know what will come of any of my more recent fixations such as the photograph with which I began this post! Perhaps nothing; perhaps a blog post; perhaps something more. One thing is for certain, however; I couldn't possibly spend the amount of time I do researching obscure topics if I didn't have a passion for them. Some of those fixations have proved incredibly fruitful. I guess, as I told my husband, it's just the way I work! People quite often ask authors where they get their ideas; mine mostly seem to come from those funny little obsessions that nobody else quite understands!

Above: a previous fixation - Steinfeld Abbey! 

NB I will blog at some future point about the photograph - I'm still crossing my fingers that someone may find it! 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Death of a memory

This week, in spite of the deadline for my next book, The Demons of Ghent, looming large on the horizon, I have taken some time off to recover from last week's very nasty virus. This has meant that I have had a bit of time not only to rest and watch rubbishy horror films, but also to catch up with friends online and do a bit of blogging.

Even though my current work in progress is set in Flanders, I have spent much of this week thinking about my former home town of Bad Münstereifel in Germany. I have submitted a guest post about the town and its influence on my writing to another blog and I've recently exchanged emails with some of my friends there. I've also been watching a documentary about Bad Münstereifel by German channel WDR online this morning, with tears running down my face.

Here is a link to the programme on WDR's website: DieStory: Unsere Stadt soll Outlet werden. The programme is (naturally) in German but if you don't speak German there are still some wonderful shots of the town and there are several scenes in which the images speak for themselves even if you can't understand the dialogue; these include the opening aerial panorama of the town which shows the twin towers of the collegiate church and the famous red Rathaus (town hall).

The documentary is all about changes that are taking place in the town. Like many other towns in these difficult economic times, Bad Münstereifel has been struggling. It shares much in common with my current home town of Crieff, where the energetic Crieff Community Trust are currently working hard to find solutions to some major challenges. Both are historic tourist towns in rural areas, with a number of empty buildings, and businesses struggling to stay afloat.

Even when we left Bad Münstereifel in 2008, there were a few empty buildings on the main shopping streets, and since then the situation has worsened. Clearly, the town needed a boost. Now a possible solution has appeared in the form of investors who have put together a plan to turn the town into "City Outlet Bad Münstereifel", an outlet centre selling designer clothes. The programme follows the investors, the town's mayor, the civil servants in charge of liaising with the public, the existing traders who are affected by the changes, and also those who object to or are concerned about the proposals. Some of the issues raised are practical ones: where will all the new shoppers park? where will the school buses park if the parking places are needed for shoppers? One resident who moved to the town specifically because of its wonderful atmosphere is afraid that it will be irrevocably changed.

I can't say what is right or wrong in this situation. I have not lived in Bad Münstereifel for five years, and so I feel I have forfeited my right to pontificate about what ought to happen there. I love the town very much; every time I visit, it still feels like home. But I don't live there any more, so I don't have to live with the consequences of developing or not developing the town centre. It is depressing living somewhere where shops are closing and buildings are derelict; that is why the Community Trust in my new home town are working hard to solve the issues here. An outsider feeling (perhaps sentimentally) that nothing should ever change shouldn't carry any weight.

All the same, I was terribly sad seeing footage of my very favourite bakery-cum-cafe, the Erft-Cafe, closing down. The landlord decided to sell the property to the outlet investors and therefore the Cafe closed last winter. The documentary follows Herr and Frau Nipp, who ran the bakery and cafe, through the last day of opening to the closure of the Erft-Cafe and the dismantling and removal of all the fittings.   (If you want a quick peep rather than watching the whole film, you can meet Herr Nipp and his wife at 7:20 in the video.)

I know Herr and Frau Nipp personally. When we first moved to Bad Münstereifel, the children were very young and their behaviour in polite settings was always a bit unpredictable. The Erft-Cafe was one place where we were always sure of a welcome regardless. On several occasions one of the children dropped a glass on the tiles or actually broke an ornament, but the staff were always understanding.

When I came to research my third novel, Wish me dead, which has a baker's daughter as a heroine, Herr Nipp was one of the people who advised me about the background details for the novel. If you turn to the acknowledgements page at the back of the book, it reads, "Special thanks are due to...Herr Nipp and the team at the Erft-Cafe and the Cafe am Salzmarkt in Bad Münstereifel, for their advice about the running of a German bakery and German bakery products." The Nipps (and also the Quastens at the Bäckerei Cafe Quasten in Kommern) kindly allowed me behind the scenes in the bakery and answered all my probing questions about murder methods in a bakery kitchen with perfect Teutonic composure.

It makes me very sad to think that the Erft-Cafe no longer exists; it feels as though a part of the children's childhood has been rooted up and thrown away. By the end of the documentary I was watching through tears. Of course, change has to happen; nothing can remain the same forever. Herr and Frau Nipp were as philosophical as possible, as were some of the other traders in the town; some of those who are hanging onto their existing businesses are hoping that the increased footfall the outlet will bring will boost their own sales. I wish them all well. We are not able to visit Bad Münstereifel this summer, but I hope to go over next year again; I hope it will still feel like home.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Tell me a story, Dad!

It's Fathers' Story Week, a time to celebrate and support Dads reading with their kids.

I am (self-evidently) a Mum, not a Dad, but I love the whole idea of Dads reading to their kids (for starters, it saves us mothers reading Where's Spot? 350 times). After perusing the Fathers' Story Week website I started to think about the part that Dads-reading-to-kids has played in my own life.

Both my husband Gordon and I have read a lot to our kids over the years - in fact, I still do, although very soon both of them will be teenagers and they have been able to read for themselves perfectly well for years and years already. I love reading aloud and now that the children are old enough to appreciate the classics I have read my way through such treasures as The Hound of the Baskervilles and King Solomon's Mines (I flatter myself that my dramatic interpretation of Gagool out of the latter book was genuinely nasty...).

Nowadays, reading to the kids is for fun; when they were tiny it was much more purposeful. When my daughter was a baby she was extremely wakeful. Seemingly it was her aim, having made it safely into the world, to stay awake 100% of the time in order not to miss anything, even when she was so tired that she was screeching with exhaustion. If I carried her around the flat or fed her, she would often fall asleep, but the minute I put her into her cradle she would generally bounce back into a state of red-alertness. A very vocal state of red-alertness. In the event that I managed to get her into the cradle without waking her up, the merest creak of a floorboard as I attempted to slink out of the room and get myself a much-needed cup of tea would generally have those baby-blues wide open and unblinking within a nano-second.

Eventually - in desperation - we worked out that the best way to get her to go to sleep was to read to her. The aim was not to perk her up, so this did not mean sitting her on someone's lap and showing her cheerful and stimulating board books. Instead, we read out books that we enjoyed ourselves, so that she could listen to the reassuring cadence of her Dad's (or Mum's) voice, and we wouldn't die of boredom in the process.* I can still remember the "breakthrough" books (no, not the ones that gave her a lifelong love of literature; the ones that got her off to sleep so I could finally, finally have that cup of tea). I read her Captain Corelli's Mandolin and my husband read her Heinrich Harrer's mountaineering classic The White Spider. Twenty to thirty minutes of either of those generally did the trick.

Gordon would sit by the cradle and read something like this: "Fritz led off into the traverse with that tremendous skill of his, fighting for his balance on smooth holdless film, winning his way, inch by inch, yard by yard, across that difficult and treacherous cliff. In places he had to knock away snow or a crust of ice from the rock with his ice-hammer; the ice-splinters swept down the slabs with a high whirring sound, to disappear into the abyss..."

So far as I know, a baby of a couple of months only recognises a very few words, such as its own name, and certainly has no concept of traverses, ice-hammers and abysses. Still, you do wonder whether some of it "went in" somehow. (The "baby" has certainly grown up with a sense of adventure; several years ago she and her father did a via ferrata climb in the French Jura together of which the photographs alone made me feel positively vertiginous. And she has still not stopped complaining that he refused to take her up a more exposed bit.) At the time, however, the main thing was that the baby finally went to sleep, without screaming the place down. I'd say that was a fairly major win for Dads-reading-to-kids.

When I was a child myself, my own father sometimes read to me, and he would also (if sufficiently nagged) re-tell the ghost stories of the great M.R.James for us during long walks and boring journeys. This has been extremely influential on my writing career. It led to a life-long love of M.R.James' ghost stories and my first published material was a series of articles in the M.R.James Ghosts and Scholars Newsletter including one about Steinfeld Abbey, scene of MRJ's tale The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. 

The real-life history of the Steinfeld Abbey stained glass also inspired my second novel, The Glass Demon, which features a fictional series of stained glass windows made by the same master craftsman who worked on the Steinfeld ones. All this sprang from listening to my father re-telling stories (I say "re-telling"; from what I remember, he had the best bits off by heart).

The other memory I have is of my father stopping part of the way through reading out The Hound of the Baskervilles because I was doing head-stands on the picnic rug and he wasn't convinced I was listening. I had to read the book myself later on because he refused to continue, but I guess it taught me a valuable lesson about Respecting Literature...

My latest book, Silent Saturday, is dedicated to my father in recognition of the influence he has had on my love of books and of a certain type of book in particular. He is the only person I know whose bookshelves include The Fireside Book of Death and E.S.Turner's Boys will be boys alongside the works of M.R.James, L.T.C.Rolt and Sheridan Le Fanu. Growing up with all those within reach, I was never going to write sweet romantic comedies myself!

Three cheers for Dads, and the books they introduce us to!

Above: a photograph of St. Bertrand de Comminges, taken by my father to accompany one of my articles about the ghost stories of M.R.James. As well as introducing me to MRJ's stories, he provided a lot of the pictures to go with my articles about them.

* This is a real danger with Beast Quest, for which my son had an unreasonable passion some years ago. There seem to be about 7,000 volumes and he made me read them all.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Love writing, hate editing

I should not be blogging. I should be working at this moment. I recently received the editorial letter* for my upcoming book The Demons of Ghent, sequel to Silent Saturday and second book in my Forbidden Spaces trilogy. There is quite a bit of work to do - and no, before you ask, they didn't say "your characters are rubbish" or "you can't spell for toffee". It's mainly about simplifying and streamlining a very complex plot. And it has to be done by July. Late July, admittedly, but still July, plus there is the complicating factor that after the end of June both my children will be at home for the holidays, so I shall be working half-days (the half being their lie-ins; the second half of the day will either be taken up with outings or there will be the merry sound of Mario Kart echoing through the house; for this reason, as mums go, I am at the very indulgent end of the spectrum when it comes to teens sleeping all morning).

So, as you can see, I really should be working away like a demon, hacking out those unfeasible bits of prose that have sprung up like weeds and planting new lovely bits that will blossom like literary roses. Or something. Anyway, my response to all this time pressure has been a familiar one. On Tuesday evening I had a sore throat and by Wednesday evening I was starting to feel very seriously unwell. On Thursday I stayed in bed and Friday was a bit of a blur. You probably could have fried an egg on my forehead at that point. People fondly imagine that it must be lovely having a hyperactive authorly imagination but on Friday it was very unpleasant. Since childhood, whenever I have had a high fever I start seeing patterns and shapes in things around me and this time was no different. A sock lying on the bedroom floor morphed into an Easter Island stone head. A piece of material sticking out of a drawer turned into a cartoon duck. I even had to call my daughter to remove a camera bag from the room because it kept turning into a cyborg with a fish's head.

Above: the zoo could have saved money by putting these meerkats next to me on Friday. 

This was all familiar territory because I took several of my O'levels in a similar state and was also ill during my university entrance exams. I'd suspect myself of malingering but the thermometer said otherwise. Anyway, the long and the short of it is, I am having a couple of days off before I get back to work. I promise to feel guilty about this when I am less exhausted and can summon up the energy. 
Hopefully the whole thing will have a kind of "reboot" effect on my brain and by this Friday I shall be zooming through the edits at top speed, fuelled by bursts of hitherto unseen brilliance (cough). 

In the meantime I thought I'd do a little light blogging, faff about on Twitter, and make even more cups of strong sweet tea for myself than I normally do. I could also toy with my VAT return but we shall see how it goes...

* Editorial letters are received with great excitement and joy by authors, much as the black spot is received by Billy Bones in Treasure Island.