christopher james

Poems and prattle

Month: November, 2015

Double acts

So what’s your favourite double act? Is it Morecambe and Wise, Watson and Holmes, Palin and Cleese, Fry and Laurie, Vic and Bob, French and Saunders or Frost and Pegg? Personally, I always liked Smith and Jones myself. Anyway, here’s a little tribute to them all! Plus a nice picture of my son and I up a tree.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Ruby Elephants – Exclusive Extract

In the long history of my association with Sherlock Holmes there has rarely been a case of more singular interest than that of the Ruby Elephants. Leafing through my notes I am reminded that there were a number of features which also mark it as one of the most disconcerting we have yet encountered. For unlike many of our exploits it was not merely one problem, but a series that were interlinked in the most peculiar fashion. And yet despite its complexity I am quite certain that it elicited the most brilliant of all of Holmes’ feats of deduction. My friend, I know disapproves of my rating of his cases in this way. However he knows that it is for my own private amusement and need for order and for this he is prepared to turn a blind eye.

Ruby cover

It was a morning in mid July when the summer heat was beginning to impose itself on our rooms at 221b Baker Street.

‘Do you see this simple length of wire?’ Holmes asked, holding a nondescript bit of steel up to the light. I glanced up from my newspaper. ‘In two years time it will make a man a million pounds. In five years it will make him ten million.’

‘Don’t be absurd,’ I muttered.

‘I have never been more serious in my life’ my friend insisted.

‘Then will he use it to pick a lock at the Tower of London?’

‘Nothing of the kind!’ Holmes was clearly in a playful mood. ‘Shall I show you?’

‘By all means,’ I sighed. ‘My practice is somewhat sluggish of late and I’d very much like to know how to conjure pounds and shillings from thin air.’ He furrowed his brow and began to manipulate the wire, bending it back on itself until it resembled something like a hair clip. He studied it again, rearranged an angle or two, then cast it onto the coffee table in triumph. It skittered across the polished wood and onto our bear skin rug. I picked it up and examined it.

‘I fail to see how it has increased in value,’ I confessed.

‘And that, my dear Watson, is why you are not a millionaire. You are a man of inestimable qualities, but you lack the essential gift of imagination.’ Holmes lit a cigarette, took a drag, then left it smoking in the ashtray. ‘Now you are aware,’ he went on, ‘that I have a somewhat haphazard filing system.’ I surveyed the sea of papers around our feet and swamping every available surface.

‘I am,’ I confirmed.

‘This,’ he said, holding up the folded wire, ‘is of more use than a score of clerks and a hundred filing cabinets.’

He picked up a handful of papers from his feet.

‘The notes,’ he announced, ‘from that curious case of the Laughing Earl.’

‘A ghoulish affair,’ I remarked.

‘And yet one you have not committed to paper, I note,’ said Holmes with a slightly peevish air.

‘I was under the impression that you put little stock in the written records I make of our adventures?’

‘No matter,’ he said, brushing this aside. ‘Pay attention.’ He tapped the sheaf of paper into alignment on the table top, then with a little cough and the air of a practiced showman, he picked up the wire between thumb and forefinger, fixed it neatly at the top of the pages and secured all five sheets together. I stared at Holmes. ‘Rather wonderful, isn’t it?’ he marveled, looking inordinately pleased with himself.

‘A million pounds?’ I repeated, incredulous.

‘If every man in Britain bought a hundred for a shilling,’ Holmes calculated, ‘it will not take long for our inventor to amass his fortune.’

‘Remarkable,’ I said, examining the bent wire it in the palm of my hand.

‘Simplicity itself,’ said Holmes.

Read on by buying the book! Thank you.

With These Hands – A Tribute to Eric Roche, Haverhill Arts Centre, 13 November 2015

A spotlight on a solitary acoustic guitar set the tone for a moving tribute to the life and music of fingerstyle guitar legend, Eric Roche. Ten years on from his untimely death, the great and the good of the acoustic guitar world assembled to pay their respects. With his family among the crowd in a packed Haverhill Arts Centre, it was set to be an emotionally charged evening.

Eric

Any suggestion that this would be a sedate affair however, was banished immediately as the show began with an explosion rendition of Roundabout from the man himself up on the big screen. With his acrobatic percussion techniques and distinctive sway, it was a reminder of the extraordinary physicality of Eric’s talent and stage presence.

Nick Keeble, resplendent in a t-shirt showing six guitars, introduced the proceedings in fine style, before Stuart Ryan opened the batting. His flowing melodic lines evoked a quiet pastoral beauty, and brought an elegiac tone to the hushed Victorian building, while also showcasing the venue’s fantastic sound. The gritty attack of his rendition of All Along the Watchtower showed that he wasn’t all about lyrical ballads.

Ravi was next up, barefoot and in beanie hat, wielding both a guitar and a kora (an African harp that resembles a sitar, played upright). His rendition of We Are, a deeply spiritual song about the links between generations was spell-biding, his rich voice occupying a space somewhere between Stephen Stills and James Taylor.

Guitar maker Nick Benjamin made an excellent unscripted speech about Eric, strolling about the stage, quite unable to resist the temptation to pick up Eric’s guitar. You got the sense that he remembered not only the hours making it, but the extraordinary transformation it underwent once in Eric’s hands. He replaced it with great care back in the spot light.

Another video of Eric’s great friend and fellow acoustic guitar innovator, Thomas Leeb was greeted with warm applause, which Thomas may well have been able to hear all the way from America, where he was unavoidably engaged.

Clive Carroll delivered a master-class with his strident, precise playing, the notes ringing high up into the rafters. He is a tremendously nice chat to boot and the audience loved his smiles and mugging while also enjoying his fiendishly difficult waltzes. Clive told us that he had spent every morning that week learning one of Eric’s pieces, especially for the show, only to discover that Higher Ground was in fact written by Stevie Wonder. The funky turbulence he generated from the six strings belied the short practice time.

David Mead gave a funny, charming and self deprecating performance, making a brilliant connection with the audience, who appreciated his own accomplished playing as much as his stories about Eric. David shared how Eric was often ‘relaxed’ about delivering his copy for the guitar magazine David edits. We learned how, on one deadline day, in a world before email, it was handed over ‘like a wad of used bank notes in a jiffy bag in a pub car park.’

Martyn Taylor was simply sublime, his effortless jazz lines lulling the crowd into a reverie. His reading of another majestic Stevie Wonder composition, If It’s Magic, prompted Nick Keeble to wonder whether in fact he had inadvertently organised a Stevie Wonder tribute night instead.

Taylor was also responsible for the anecdote of the night, remembering a famous mishap when he and Eric were recording up in the islands of Scotland. He recalled the intense pressure Eric put himself under while making the album. Suggesting they take a break for a drink, they caught a ferry to the pub. On the return journey however, they were so engrossed in discussing the music, they ended up back where they started, sheepishly having to ask the captain if he wouldn’t mind making one last crossing.

The young, bearded and ridiculously talented Declan Zapala provided a late highlight with his version of Angel, dedicated to Eric’s sister before essaying his own astonishing Philomena, dedicated to his own mum. He spoke movingly of the influence Eric had on his style and it was inspiring to see Eric’s legacy passed so impressively onto the next generation. The stretches Declan made with his hands to reach the notes made them look like spiders doing Pilates.

An all star version of With These Hands, one of Eric most beautiful compositions, led by Stuart Ryan, providing a fitting coda to the evening. The other guitarists crowded endearingly around their sheet music in an effort to keep up. A final song from Ravi, Time Capsule, finally ended the night on an optimistic note, with the image of Eric watching over us.

And if he was watching, Eric could not have failed to be impressed by the virtuosity, affection and joy so evident in the room. Cheers guys for an incredibly performance and thank you Eric, too!

10 great adversaries of Sherlock Holmes

moriarty

Holmes aficionados know there’s more to life than Professor Moriarty. The Sherlock Holmes stories contained an astonishingly colourful cast of cads, crooks and show boaters (most frequently wayward colonels for some reason). Indeed Conan Doyle was often at his best when drawing pen sketches of his villains. It is of remarkable how he can conjure them into life with just a few deft strokes.

                                             Sherlock silhouette      Top hat
                   

Here is a list nine memorable scoundrels from the original canon, plus a surprise at number ten from my own, new Sherlock Holmes novel: The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants. Beware of some spoiler alerts, however, as some of these are not revealed as the villains until the end of the stories. You have been warned!

  1. Irene Adler, A Scandal in Bohemia

To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes, she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex.

‘What a woman – oh, what a woman!’ cried the King of Bohemia.

  1. Colonel Lysander Stark, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb

I saw the lean figure of Colonel Lysander Stark rushing forward with a lantern in one hand, and a weapon like a butcher’s cleaver in the other.

  1. Charles Augustus Milverton, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

He was a man of fifty, with a large intellectual head, a round, plump, hairless face, a perpetual frozen smile and two keen, grey eyes, which gleamed brightly from behind broad, golden-rimmed glasses.

‘Mr Holmes, Mr Holmes,’ he said, turning the front of his coat and exhibiting the butt of a large revolver. I have been expecting you to do something original.’

  1. Professor Coram, The Adventure of the Golden Pinze-Nez

It was a gaunt, aquiline face which was turned towards us with piercing dark eyes, which lurked in deep hollows under overhung and tufted brows. His hair and beard were white, save that the latter was curiously stained with yellow around his mouth. A cigarette glowed amid the tangle of white hair. ‘Tobacco and my work – that is all that is left to me.’

  1. Baron Gruner, the Adventure of the Illustrious Client

The fellow is, as you may have heard, extraordinarily handsome, with a most fascinating manner, a gentle voice and that air of romance and mystery which mean so much to a woman. He is said to have the whole sex at his mercy and to have made ample use of the fact…The Baron has little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like the short antennae of an insect.

  1. Mr Culverton Smith, The Adventure of the Dying Detective

With a shrill cry of anger, a man rose from a reclining chair beside the fire. I saw a great yellow face, coarse grained and greasy, with a heavy double chin, and two sullen menacing grey eyes that glared at me from under tufted and sandy brows.

‘What is this?’ he cried in a high, screaming voice. ‘What is the meaning of this intrusion?’

  1. Colonel Sebastian Moran, The Adventure of the Empty House

It was a tremendously virile and yet sinister face which was turned towards us. The brow of a philosopher above and the jaw of a sensualist below, the man must have started with great capacities for good or for evil.

  1. Colonel James Moriarty, The Adventure of the Final Problem

He is extremely tall and thin, his forehead domes out in a white curve and his two eyes are deeply shrunken in his head. He is clean shaven, pale and ascetic-looking, retaining something of the professor in his features. ‘It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one’s dressing gown.’

  1. John Clay, The Adventure of the Red Headed League

‘John Clay, the murderer, thief, smasher and forger. He is a remarkable man, is young John Clay. His grandfather was a Royal Duke and he himself has been to Eton and Oxford. He’ll crack a crib in Scotland one week, and be raising money to build an orphanage in Cornwall the next. I’ve been on his track for years and have never set eyes on him yet.’

  1. The Archangels, The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants

I awoke in a room that was perfectly dark. The floor was cold, and the air was damp, like that of a cellar.

‘Stand up, Dr Watson,’ came a voice.

‘Who are you?’

‘My name is Michael.’ There was a light in the form of a single flame. I heard another voice.

‘I am Raphael,’ it announced and another torch was lit.

Then behind me, another:

‘Uriel.’  And at the fourth point of the compass:

‘I am Gabriel.’ I was at the centre of the four flames.

The four of them wore identical black frock coats, top hats and strange, round spectacles with darkened glass. At the far end of the room, they gathered themselves into a knot, with blades flashing at the end of their canes, their eyes gleaming like demons.

‘You are vampires, not angels,’ I cried.

Ruby elephants cover

The Wedding of the Year

We appear to be having some sort of seasonal confusion at the moment. On 1 November here in the UK it was 22 degrees centigrade and we were lounging about in the sun.

As we kicked through the autumn leaves in our t-shirts, this got me thinking about what would happen if one season got married to another. Naturally it would result in The Wedding of the Year. Enjoy!

Happyland – In Broadstairs with The Ghost of Charles Dickens

Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, my wife and I celebrated our 40th birthdays in Broadstairs, Kent. That is not to suggest that they sent us away as a deliberate ploy to avoid spending the day with us! It was a literary birthday present of the best possible kind.

For those who don’t know it, (and I’m loath to make it more popular than it already is) Broadstairs is a glorious sun-drenched spot, bursting with pubs, bookshops, more pubs, ice cream parlors, fish restaurants and a great surfing beach.

viking-bay-broadstairs

We stayed in Bleak House, the imposing, fort like construction over looking Viking Bay where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield. As an extra treat, we slept in Dickens’ own bed, which was reputedly also slept in by both Queen Victoria, and ‘Mr Slash’ from Guns and Roses, although we assume not at the same time.

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After 5pm, we also had Dickens’ study, in the next room, all to ourselves. While my wife was powdering her nose, and draining the complimentary sherry, I went in and sat in the dark at the great man’s desk looking out at the moon over the bay.

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Behind me on the walls were yellowing posters, play bills, manuscripts, pince-nez, paper knives and other assorted Dickens paraphernalia. It was perfectly quiet except for the distant brushing of the waves on the beach. Suddenly the door closed and the latch dropped with a loud click. The temperature seemed to plummet and I fully expected to feel Dickens’ hand on my shoulder.

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That night there were fireworks over the beach, a 1920s flapper party going on in the function room below and the whole episode inspired this silly jazz-age number which I send out by way of a thank you to the delightful hotel staff, for the pals who subbed our memorable trip and to Charles Dickens for the inspiration. Gawd bless him!

Happyland