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Friday 20 January 2023

FOLLY - Book review

Alan Titchmarsh’s 2008 novel is a romantic story set across generations with a couple of twists.

He’s done this time-jumping before; it’s always a risk: maybe the reader will get confused or even lost. Here, it works well enough. The story begins in 2007 and concerns two long-established businesses in Bath – the Ballantynes and the Kings – both involved in the sale of artwork.

We fleetingly meet Jamie Ballantyne during an auction of some famous paintings, and Artemis (‘Missy’) King. He’s selling, she’s buying. They’d been friends for a long time and then she went off to the US and stayed for five years.

Then we step back into Oxford in 1949. There are four art students who go around together: the rich Honourable Leo Bedlington; John (‘Mac’) Macready, a Glaswegian; Harry Ballantyne; Richard King; and Eleanor Faraday. Both Harry and Richard desired her but neither did anything about it.

Jamie mulled about Missy and her appreciation of the painter Munnings. ‘Where dogs craved affection and cats demanded respect, horses inspired admiration and awe, and any artist who could catch their spirit seemed to her to be peerless. (p76).

In 2007 Missy’s grandfather is Richard and Jamie’s is Harry. Neither knows why, but their grandparents have been at loggerheads for almost sixty years! Nobody talks about it. Jamie’s mother has a streak of common sense to her: the feud’s ‘origins are lost in the mists of time and I think everyone would be better diverting their energies into today, rather than yesterday’ (p271). If only the ‘woke’ who want to rewrite history would listen!

Jamie and Missy reawaken their previous attraction and indeed fall in love. Yet the family feud threatens to confound them.

Skipping back and forth through time, we see how chances are lost, love is not reciprocated, and indeed the reader becomes irritated at the folly of these people who are incapable of revealing their true feelings. Except for Mac; he did just that, with disastrous results!

The descriptions of the period, the art world and the countryside sometimes verge on the poetic and at other times Titchmarsh delivers humour: ‘It seemed as if his inquisitor was in danger, at any moment, of bursting out of his clothes and sending buttons flying to the four corners of the book-lined room. All three chins wobbled as he made his point, and his cheeks were the colour and shade of Worcestor Pearmain apples… (p219).

The final twist was a mite too convenient but clearly Titchmarsh wanted to avoid an unhappy ending! An enjoyable novel, nevertheless.

I blame the editor:

When there only two characters in a scene, there is little need to constantly repeat their names to show who is speaking. In most cases, it will be obvious by what is being said. Also, ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ is adequate. There are a few instances of this issue; and one can be found on page 175.


Monday 16 January 2023


Looking back, it seems that although I never actually served in a submarine, my life has been connected to the Silent Service for quite a number of years, in the Senior Service and also civilian life. 

Leaving my parental home in Whitley Bay, I joined the Royal Navy on 18 October, 1965, after taking a long train journey (about 14 hours) from Newcastle upon Tyne mainline station via London to Torpoint, Cornwall. I was reading the science fiction novel Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke). I was inducted in HMS Raleigh, one of several RN training establishments, where I learned to march, tie knots, tackle obstacle courses, pass the swimming test wearing overalls, and many other nautical things that comprised Part I Training. From here the ratings were dispersed to a variety of establishments for specialist training, depending on their allocated branch. My branch was Supply and Secretariat (S&S): I was a Writer, which seemed appropriate since I’d written a novel when I was sixteen.

After specialist training in Chatham (Part II Training) I was drafted to the brick ship HMS St Vincent, Gosport, Hants, working in the Captain’s office. [This establishment has since been converted into a school]. My Service Certificate attests that I volunteered for the Submarine Service – though there were not many billets for writers; the branch only served on the larger submarines, not the conventional diesel vessels.

My first seagoing ship was the tribal-class frigate HMS Zulu (F124) which I joined on 27 April 1967 at Rosyth. Our office comprised a staff of two writers and a petty officer writer. Unfortunately in May, while the ship was exercising off Scotland, I developed a resistant cough which alarmed the Sick Berth medic so I had to be landed at HMS Neptune, Faslane – the Clyde Submarine Base. I was diagnosed with urti (upper respiratory tract infection). The shore-based sick bay was my first encounter with submariners.

I was fortunate to have a room to myself – the coughing was quite horrendous and disturbing to anyone else in the vicinity; for me, it was just painful. On the left-hand side of the bed was a bookcase crammed with books. Hitherto, my reading material at the time was spy novels and thrillers, science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Conan Doyle and Wilbur Smith adventures. In the bookcase, however, I found a good number of books by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, and Georges Simenon, which I read voraciously.

A couple of hospitalised old salts popped in to see me – they’d heard my coughing, no doubt, since it was quite alarming and pronounced – and introduced themselves and asked me if I was on a boat. I said, ‘Yes. HMS Zulu.’

‘That’s not a boat,’ I was told most firmly, ‘it’s a ship. A boat is a submarine.’

‘Oh.’ Well, you live and learn.

When I finished my first seagoing deployment on Zulu – flying from Singapore to UK – I was drafted to the brick ship HMS Dolphin on the staff of Flag Officer Submarines (FOSM) in Gosport on 1 December 1969. Dolphin was the base for the First SM Squadron, comprising conventional submarines and here also was sited the distinctive Tower for training submariners, the SETT – Submarine Escape Training Tank. The SETT was commissioned in 1954 and continued pressurised submarine escape training until 2009.

I worked in the Drafting Office for submariners, an office above Alecto Colonnade. The whole office was transferred to a new building, HMS Centurion, Gosport in May 1970; other drafting office personnel (responsible for surface ship postings) – Commodore Naval Drafting – joined us from Haslemere, Lythe Hill, Surrey. Centurion was ‘commissioned’ 16 October 1970 as the RN pay and records establishment; its computers then were ICL machines.

While there I drafted Supply & Secretariat and Medical personnel to Nuclear, Polaris and conventional submarines. At that time, the squadrons consisted of: First – conventional based at Dolphin; Second – conventional and also Valiant-class submarines based at Devonport; Third – conventional based at Faslane; Seventh – conventional, based at Singapore, though disbanded in 1971; Tenth – the Polaris ‘bombers’ also based at Faslane.

Better to appreciate the living conditions I was assigning the men to endure, I requested a trip on a submarine. Happily, I identified the conventional submarine HMS Artemis which was scheduled for exercise off the Bay of Biscay followed by a brief visit to Newcastle upon Tyne. I joined Artemis alongside at Dolphin and sailed with her for a week or so. As it was a conventional boat, space was limited, the crew hot-bunking – one man on duty, the off-duty man in his bunk, and then vice versa. My bunk was different; it was in the fore-ends, among the torpedoes, with a polythene sheet stretched above me to catch the odd drip from the pipes that snaked along the deck-head. Lying there, I could hear the water rushing against the boat’s hull. For a brief watch period I steered the craft, used the periscope, and later climbed up into the conning tower, where the fresh air was most welcome; while up there, I participated in the excitement of ‘dive, dive, dive’, shutting the hatch on the way down. Needless to say, the rough seas of Biscay did not bother us. At the end of the exercise I thanked the crew and disembarked when the boat moored at the Tyne quayside; and I went home to Whitley Bay to see my parents for the weekend! Then I rejoined the office, greatly appreciative of the confined conditions the submariners lived and worked in.

Out of this experience I wrote my first short story sale, ‘Hover-Jack’ for the weekly magazine, Parade published in 1971: a spy story featuring a Soviet submarine and the Isle of Wight hovercraft!

The Navy News published two of my articles on the mechanics of drafting to submarines: ‘Giving deep thought to submarines’ and ‘How they filled Cornucopia’.  I created the fictional HMS Cornucopia for illustration purposes. At the time – I cannot speak for the present – there were never enough volunteers for submarines. Naturally, drafting officers would accept those who volunteered – providing they passed what was termed Part III Training, which entailed classes in the Submarine School in Dolphin, which included safety procedures and undergoing the Escape Training in the SETT. To fill the SM quota, certain personnel would be drafted into submarines who had not volunteered; their initial draft was for five years, after which they would be returned to the surface fleet. However, when the five years were due to expire the vast majority of those non-volunteers elected to remain in boats – around 90% –  partly due to the additional pay but also by then they were well-versed in the ethos of the Silent Service, which was essentially a small navy within the Royal Navy.

Every RN rating completed a drafting preference card (DPC), asking for a preferred base – in those days there were a lot more bases than nowadays. Every individual’s personal card showing current draft and previous billets, together with his DPC and was held in a whirligig (see photo below; I'm at the end of the office, with beard).


The idea was to balance sea-time with a certain amount of shore-time; this would vary depending on the particular branch. Submarine squadrons also had a ‘spare crew’, men drafted here who still might have more sea-time to clock up before being sent for a longer stay in a shore base. This spare crew was available at short notice to plug gaps due to illnesses and other absences; it was popular for some who preferred going to sea, but not for everyone, as they found it unsettling.

Several of the FOSM staff visited Barrow-in-Furness to give talks about the process of determining who to draft. While there we descended into the dry dock of HMS Conqueror. The words iceberg and surface sprang to mind; the screws were huge, gleaming, almost like gold, like something out of science fiction.

My time with submarine drafting ended in 1974 when I was drafted to RNH Mtarfa, a RN hospital in Malta near Rabat three months after marriage. On return in 1975 I underwent the Leadership Course at HMS Royal Arthur, Wiltshire, and then joined HMS Mermaid (F76) in March 1976, a few days after our daughter was born.  

In June 1977 I was reacquainted with submariners, being drafted to HMS Neptune, the Clyde Submarine Base; it was the day before my birthday, great timing! This was the home of four Resolution-class Ballistic missile Polaris submarines – below is a photo of one in the 1970s.

I was in charge of the Central Records Office, staff comprising seven naval personnel (male and female) and I also had the responsibility for several civilians, such as messengers, the typing pool, and the print room. The Head Messenger was a mine of information, since he’d been there a long time; he was due to retire and join his family in Canada so was not averse to apprising me of certain civil service goings-on.

For example: Every civilian was entitled to a certain number of days per year sick leave without the requirement of a doctor’s note; they made sure they took their ‘sickies’ – effectively looking on them as additional leave entitlement.

Before my time there, during a mail strike, two Glaswegian messengers were tasked with taking the RN van into the nearby town of Helensburgh and picking up the mail – and regularly popping into the local hostelry for a couple of bevvies before returning to the base with the mail sacks. No problem. However, after the strike ended, they continued doing this for well over a year.

Thus apprised, I pointed out to the pair that there was no longer any need for them to make the journey and taxpayers’ money was being wasted. They objected and brought in their union representative. The Commodore was not best pleased as this business was about to be blown out of all proportion, with a strike being threatened. I was told to sort it out, and arranged for a meeting with the union representative and the two messengers. That weekend at home I didn’t sleep too well. Fortunately, on the Monday, after I put my reasoned argument, the union man admitted that the two guys in question had enjoyed a good run but it must come to an end; we agreed on a compromise, giving them until the end of the month to desist.    

I left Neptune 9 October 1979, and returned to HMS Centurion until my draft to the Leander-class frigate HMS Diomede (F16) and had no further involvement with submarines whilst serving in the RN.

During our fifteen years living in Spain, Jen and I visited Cartagena a few times and saw the submarine Peral on display in the harbour. The craft was the first successful full electric battery-powered submarine. It was built by the Spanish engineer Isaac Peral for the Spanish Navy and launched in 1888. She was armed with two torpedoes. Yet, after two years of successful tests, the project was terminated.

Near our home in Spain is the town of Torrevieja. Here, in the harbour, is a submarine tourist attraction – S61 Delfín – Spanish for Dolphin.

Returning from our family’s lengthy sojourn in Spain, we moved to Blyth, Northumberland, which had been a submarine training base over many years.  During the First World War Blyth was the base for the depot ship Titania and submarines of the Eleventh Flotilla that were to support the Grand Fleet. Apparently, at the battle of Jutland, a Blyth-based submarine took part in the engagement and was credited with sinking a German warship.

At the time of the Second World War the Blyth base was named HMS Elfin and became a training base for about 200 officers. There is now a blue plaque signifying the position of the submarine base (see photo below); near the Blyth Boathouse and Caboose restaurant.

The S-class submarine HMS Seahorse was a member of the 2nd Submarine Flotilla whose wartime base was Dundee. After a number of unsuccessful patrols in the north-sea, the boat would often stop at Blyth, as the base was nearer its patrol area. On the night of 25 December 1939, before Seahorse would depart for her sixth war patrol off Heligoland Bight, seven submariners visited the Astley Arms, Seaton Sluice. Tickets for a raffle were being sold for a bottle of Johnny Walker Whisky. By the time of the draw, the submarine was at sea. As luck would have it, the submariners had won the bottle, but it was not collected. Seahorse’s orders were to initially patrol off Heligoland and then move to the mouth of the Elbe on 30 December. She was expected to return to Blyth on 9 January 1940. It was assumed that she was struck by a mine but after examining German records at the end of hostilities it was considered possible that she could have been sunk by the German First Minesweeper Flotilla which reported carrying out a prolonged depth charge attack on an unknown submarine on 7 January. Another possibility is that she was rammed and sunk by the German Sperrbrecher IV/Oakland southeast of Heligoland on 29 December. Seahorse was the first British submarine lost to enemy action. The whisky bottle remained untouched at the Astley Arms for many years until it was eventually transferred for display at the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hants.

On display in the Blyth Community Hospital is the name-plate of HMS Onslaught. (I used to draft personnel to this Oberon-class boat). On the boat’s visit to Blyth in 1979 the officers and crew were given the Freedom of the Borough of Blyth. Onslaught was decommissioned in 1990, having served for twenty-eight years, and eventually scrapped at Aliga, Turkey in 1991.

Not far from the hospital, outside St Mary’s Church alongside Blyth’s regenerated town square, is a memorial and an anchor. The anchor (seen below through the silhouette) belonged to the T-class submarine HMS Tiptoe. She was named by Winston Churchill, implying that the boat could approach the enemy silently as if on tiptoe. The Royal Navy naming committee was against the name, arguing that ‘it was derogatory to one of His Majesty's ships’, but the Prime Minister had his way. The vessel had links with the Royal Ballet and Moira Shearer; its crest features a ballet dancer.

So far, that seems to be my involvement with submarines and submariners. I think it is quite apt that I should settle in a town that honours the Silent Service.



Boat: Submarine

Branch: Specialisation, such as Seaman, Communications, Medical, S&S, and Weapons.

Draft: Soldiers and airmen are posted but naval personnel are drafted.

Deck-head: ceiling in a ship or submarine

Fore-ends: the front of a submarine

Target: any enemy surface vessel

Friday 13 January 2023


 Mountain Killer is the first in a series concerning the Tales of Tom Mix by Scott McCrea (2022).

This adventure takes place in 1911 when Mix was thirty-one and a marshal of Dewey. By this time he had already starred in films and was well known. ‘Sheriff Kohl liked the showman-Marshal well enough, but suspected there was more show than sand in Tom Mix’ (p1).

On his way to give a talk to some Texas Rangers, Tom’s passing through the small city of La Mort Sanglante in the Oklahoma mountains. The place twenty-five years back had been a tent city but now was quite prosperous, virtually owned in its entirety by Mr Pierre Cavanagh. The previous night Mrs Evelyn Cavanagh was savaged by a bear, probably the notorious Big Claw, in her mansion’s library. Sheriff Kohl invites Mix to help out in an unofficial capacity.

The blurb tells us so it isn’t giving anything away to reveal that Mix suspects that the woman’s death was not caused by a bear but by a man.

How he arrives at this conclusion and his relationship with the various townsfolk keep the reader guessing. What seems likely is that some incidents over two decades ago are now casting fatal shadows over the township. The threat is decidedly real: while escorting Cavanagh’s pretty daughter Hillary they are shot at – whether that’s by a disgruntled film critic, an old enemy from Mix’s past, or a particularly talented bear remains to be seen.

It is clear that Mix has an eye for the ladies – not least the plucky Hillary – which is not surprising, perhaps, since he was married five times. During these events he was married to his third wife, Olive and nothing improper occurred.

Indeed, there are enough fascinating and amusing characters to enliven the story, not least the alcoholic Doc Gamble, the reclusive governor Suchet and his giant of an Indian butler-cum-bodyguard, Morgan.

There are also some amusing asides and observations to balance the grim killings in this engaging tale.

McCrea has created a likeable hero who clearly has the potential for many adventures: this one is followed by Savage Mesa, Cowboy Justice, Deuces Wild and Hogg Wild in that order.

Thursday 12 January 2023


The Pale Blue Eye

This 2022 Netflix film is worth watching for the strong performances of Christian Bale, Toby Jones, Timothy Spall and especially Harry Melling as Poe himself. It’s based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Louis Bayard. (The 17-year gap between publication and film release must give hope to many an author!)

It’s 1830 and (alcoholic – aren’t they all?) retired detective Augustus Landor (Bale) is asked by the military to investigate the hanging of Cadet Leroy Fry at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. Landor is a widower who lives alone since his daughter Mathilde left him a few years earlier.

After Fry was hanged, his heart was removed from his body. In the morgue, examining the corpse, Landor finds a small fragment of a note clutched tightly in Fry's hand. Also, marks on Fry's neck and fingers suggest that he did not hang himself, but was murdered.

With the permission of Superintendent Thayer (Spall), Landor enlists the help of Edgar Allan Poe (Melling), another cadet at the academy who has expressed an interest in the case. Poe and Landor deduce from the writing on the note fragment that it was summoning Fry to a secret meeting. Then another cadet, Ballinger, goes missing and is later found hanged; he is also mutilated and organs removed. A third cadet, Stoddard, who was a colleague of the two victims, then disappears, and it is presumed by Landor that this man had reason to believe he was next in line to be killed....

Landor and Poe begin to suspect the family of Dr Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones), who was first brought into the investigation to perform the autopsy on Fry. Particular suspicion is placed on his son Artemus (Harry Lawtey) and his daughter Lea (Lucy Boynton)…

Melling tends to steal every scene he’s in, no mean accomplishment against Bale. His look, voice and mannerism are mesmerising. Certainly, the film prompts the viewer to seek out Bayard’s book.

Poe’s influence on other writers is considerable, notably Conan Doyle, Verne and Lovecraft. I too am not immune. I wrote a noir western as a homage to Poe, Coffin for Cash (2016), which contains several allusions to his life and work. These can be viewed in this blog:

October 2017 Dark Echoes


February 2016 – Book review of The Tell-Tale Heart


July 2020 – Disinterring Coffin for Cash - 1


July 2020 - Disinterring Coffin for Cash - 2

Sunday 8 January 2023

MOON - Book review


The last James Herbert book I read was Fluke in 2012. So it was about time I read some more of his impressive output, starting with his 1985 novel Moon.

Moon begins dramatically with a boy tormented in his bed; this is ‘before’. The rest is ‘after’. A particularly gruesome evisceration of a dead woman is followed by a diver experiencing a waking nightmare that almost threatens his life. Jon Childes survives, being hauled out of the sea by Amy, a fellow teacher. Both work on a Channel Island; Jon teaches IT, Amy teaches French and English.

It appears that Jon had fled the mainland – England – after being instrumental in tracking down a serial killer. Reluctant to admit it, Jon somehow possessed a weird psychic ability that enables him to get into the killer’s mind and pinpoint where the bodies were buried. Unfortunately, the sensational press and sceptical police cast suspicion on him. That was three years ago. Since then, he has not received any psychic imagery or suffered grisly nightmares. Until now.

Herbert’s success is partly due to his ability to create an atmosphere of dread – usually surrounding innocuous individuals who find it difficult to cope with the supernatural. ‘The mourners were grouped around the open grave, dark clothes struck grey by the sunlight. Stained white crosses, slabs, and smiling cracked angels were dispassionate observers in the field of sunken bones. The mushy cadence of traffic could be heard in the distance…’ (p42)

During a meal with Amy’s family and other guests, Jon briefly discusses computing. ‘You’re talking of an ideal situation where the computer is a normal household item, a regular piece of furniture like the TV or stereo unit. We’re a long way off from that situation’ (p48). How times have changed since 1985! Envisioning video-calls on mobile phones must have seemed like Star Trek then.

Complications arise when Amy’s influential father takes a disliking to Jon and institutes an investigation into his past…

Even nowadays, there are plenty of people who still retain an open mind about extra sensory perception and other related phenomena. So perhaps it is not unusual for Amy to accept Jon’s talent – or curse. Amy says: ‘It isn’t stupid at all; it makes a weird kind of sense. Strong emotions, a sudden shock, can induce a strong telepathic connection between certain people, and that’s well known’ (p79).

The moon begins to evince significance for Jon: ‘He was aware of what was happening to him and dreaded what images were to be further unveiled. He experienced a desperate need to be safe inside his home, feeling terribly exposed, vulnerable to the luminescent night, the moon’s stark glare causing the surroundings to appear frozen, the trees oddly flat as if cut from cardboard, the shadows deep and clear-edged’ (p111).

Jon enlists the help of Detective Inspector Overoy, who had been involved in the cases three years ago. Overoy is a rarity, a believer in Jon’s ability. The case almost cost Jon his sanity, but it did ruin his marriage, though he remains on speaking terms with his ex-wife Fran and fairly regularly sees his daughter Gabby.

Inevitably, this new killer becomes aware of Jon while Jon sees through the killer’s eyes. Now it is a battle of wills, and the killer taunts him, threatening all Jon holds dear, and more tragedy and deaths are to follow before the grim climax.

A fast read. A page-turner. Suspend disbelief in the supernatural and enjoy the ride!

Sunday 1 January 2023



Ruth Rendell’s The Keys to the Street (1996) is yet another of her intriguing psychological suspense novels. This time she delves into the world of the street people, the dispossessed, the homeless.

The first lines of the book dwell on the iron spikes that surmount the gates of the London Park near the zoo. These – or similar – spikes are relevant later, when some murders occur: a couple of dossers are found impaled on them.

But this isn’t a detective story. The main character is Mary Jago, who works at the Irene Adler museum, which panders to fans of Sherlock Holmes. She has been cohabiting with Alistair, though now she fears him, as he has become controlling and prone to bouts of ill temper. Mary recently offered herself as a bone marrow donor and actually underwent the procedure, effectively saving a man’s life. Alistair is forcefully uncomfortable about this: ‘You need some sense shaking into you’ and shook her with a kind of frenzy (p52). So she plucks up the courage and decides to move out, and has found a temporary job of house-sitting for several months. There is also a dog left with the house – Gushi.

Mr Bean (no, not that one; see below) is a seventy-year-old dog walker and takes up to six at a time, twice daily, including Gushi. Previously, he’d been in the employ of a certain Maurice Clitheroe who was a deranged masochist. Since then, Bean is always on the lookout for scandal that might provide him with blackmail money, and has his sights on one dog-owning client, Mr Barker-Pryce, MP.

Mary and Leo Nash, the bone marrow recipient, meet and are attracted.

From time to time Mary sees a number of homeless in the park area. One of them is Roman Ashton – he’s reading Gogol’s Dead Souls when she first observes him. Roman suffered a tragic loss and sold up his house and lost himself in the streets. Despite not appearing or sounding like the usual street person, he gradually learns the ways of dossers, noting for example that ‘only another dosser sits on the seat where a dosser already is’ (p89).

Harvey Owen Bennett – known as Hob – is a damaged junkie who is willing to do anything to get a fix to relieve his ‘state’.

Another dosser is Pharaoh – real name Jimmy Clancy – whose coat is decorated with countless keys. Apparently he’s seeking ‘the keys of the Kingdom’ (p149). Mr Bean possesses a key to a private residents’ park.

The inner lives and varied past of these characters are examined by Rendell as we move through the novel, and there will be interconnections. Rendell appears knowledgeable about London’s labyrinthine streets, the habits of junkies, dog-walkers and the homeless. In addition, Rendell’s gift for description never fails to put the reader in the scene: ‘In the dark canal a full moon was reflected like a round white light under the water. Trees trailed thin branches across its surface as if to catch the moon in their net’ (p149).

Even when the twist occurs, there is no let-up for the reader. The pages have to be turned to find out what happens next.

An excellent read.

Editorial comment:

The choice of the name ‘Mr Bean’. I can’t understand why Rendell would opt for this since Rowan Atkinson had made his comical Mr Bean famous in 1990 and thereafter.