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Mary Blandy has the dubious honour of being Henley-on-Thames’s most famous ghost.   She was a well-to-do woman in the 18th century who was hanged for poisoning her father with arsenic.   Since then her ghost seems to have incurred a number of spectral legends in and around the affluent Oxfordshire town.

Mary was born in 1720, the daughter of Francis Blandy, a wealthy lawyer.  She was his only child, and the apple of his eye.  Mary was well-educated, and respected in her neighbourhood.   Unfortunately, due to having been left scarred by an attack of smallpox, Mary was no beauty, but Francis let it be known that he had settled a dowry of £10,000 on her (a huge sum in those days).    Not surprisingly, the wolves soon came sniffing around, and Francis had unwittingly sealed his doom.

It is said that, on a trip to the fashionable spa town of Bath with her parents in 1746, Mary made the acquaintance of one Captain William Henry Cranstoun, the son of a Scottish nobleman.   The two hit it off, and for about a year, Captain Cranstoun even moved in with the Blandys, but things soon proved to be complicated.  It turned out that William already had a wife, Anne Murray, up in Scotland, who had had a son by him.  William kept making return trips to Scotland, stressing to Mary’s father  that he was making great efforts to get his marriage annulled.   Francis though was sceptical about this, and looked as if he was getting cold feet about the whole arrangement.

What happened next is a matter of some conjecture, but Mary claimed that William sent her a powder, saying it was a “love philtre”, and that if she slipped it into Francis’s food he would soon come round and be amenable to them.   Whether Mary really believed this fanciful tale is still open to debate, but she put the powder into her father’s tea and gruel.   Francis became ill, and so did some of the servants, who tasted it too.   When it became clear that Francis was dying he called for Mary, and gave her his forgiveness.   It was unlikely everyone else was going to be quite so forgiving though.

Wen Francis died on 14 August 1751, a local doctor advised Mary that she could be held responsible.  Mary immediately burnt all Cranstoun’s letters, and tried to dispose of the incriminating powder by chucking it on the fire.  Unfortunately (for Mary that is), a housemaid, Susan Gunnell, was quick off the mark, and snatched some of the powder from the embers.  It was sent to a chemist for analysis.   Perhaps, to no surprise to anyone, the powder turned out to be arsenic.

Mary was put under house arrest and confined in her room.  Somehow though she managed to get out and brazenly went for a saunter around Henley, where she was greeted with some considerable hostility by the locals.  So much so that they chased her across Henley Bridge and into Berkshire, where Mary took refuge with her friend, Mrs Davis, who was landlady of the Little Angel Inn at Remenham.

Meanwhile Captain Cranstoun was doing some fleeing of his own.  He managed to escape to France, and eventually wound up in Belgium, where he died, penniless, and suffering from an intestinal ailment, several months later.

Mary was carted off to Oxford Castle Gaol to await trial.   Her story had become a considerable ’cause celebre’, and her trial was to become famous for being the first time that forensic examination of arsenic – by Dr Anthony Addington – was to be used.   The trial opened at 8 AM on 3 March 1752, and lasted one whole day.   The audience was mainly made up of excitable students from the university, and Mary reportedly defended herself with intelligence, saying she had put the powder in her father’s food, but she had had no idea it was arsenic.   She tried to paint herself as the innocent wronged woman, issuing the rallying-cry “what woman can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make for us?”  But the Court was having none of it.  By 9 o’clock that night Mary had been granted a date with the hangman.

On her return to Oxford Castle Gaol, Mary was greeted by the jailer’s family, who were upset on her behalf, as they had become charmed by their now famous inmate.  Mary though seemed unperturbed by her fate, and brusquely told them “don’t mind it”, and then announced she was hungry and wanted a speedy supper.  She dined heartily off mutton chops and apple pie.   Whilst in jail Mary had been informed that her father had left only £4000 in his Will, so the infamous £10,000 dowry – the cause of all the trouble – wouldn’t have materialised anyway.

There is some speculation as to exactly where Mary met her death.  Some say she was hanged in the courtyard of Oxford Castle (which to me seems the most logical place), or in what is now the site of the Westgate Shopping Centre.   Wherever it was, Mary walked out to her doom on the morning of Easter Monday, 6 April 1752.   She was wearing “a black crepe sack”, and her arms and hands were bound with black ribbons.   As she ascended the ladder to the noose, Mary noticed that some spectators in the crowd were trying to look up her skirts.  She uttered the legendary phrase “for the sake of decency gentlemen, don’t hang me high”.

It is said that throughout the execution had blackbird had perched on the crossbar of the gallows, and that no blackbird ever perched there afterwards.

If the people of Henley-on-Thames thought that was to be the last of Mary though, they were to be mistaken.  Reports of her spectral presence in the area have lasted down the years.  On one occasion it is thought that she objected to a play about her, which was being put on at the local Kenton Theatre, and indulged in some petulant glass-smashing.   She is also thought to have haunted the Little Angel Inn, as well as the Catherine Wheel pub, and ghost walks have been held in her honour in the area.   She has also been reputed to haunt Oxford Castle and the Westgate Shopping Centre (goodness knows what she makes of that).

Mary has been in the news as recently as 2011, when her former home, Park Place, was bought for a staggering £140 million by a Russian oligarch.   It was the highest sum ever paid for a house in Britain.   I wonder if Mary came as part of the package …

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May Eve

 

 You could cut the atmosphere with a knife round here.  There is something in the air. You don’t have to have special powers to feel it.  The corridors and stairways seem to be hives of whispering, and people rush past me with eyes downcast, scuttling along.  As a mere servant, I don’t expect to get noticed anyway, but this is even more than usual.

 I was mopping the stone floor that runs from the main kitchen to the door that opens onto the gardens at the back, when Master Cromwell himself accidentally slammed into my bucket.  I apologised profusely, but he barely noticed and marched on, lost in his own thoughts. I had a little chuckle to myself, “he kicked the bucket!”, but it would be more than my life’s worth to say it out loud.   The way things are at the moment a poor soul could find themselves in the Tower just for making a ribald joke.

 Some people are far too reckless, they don’t seem to understand how high the stakes are at the moment, and a humble background is no guarantee of safety.  That poor young man, Mark Smeaton, has been missing for several hours now. I heard he had been invited to Master Cromwell’s house, but he hasn’t returned.  He had his head turned. He was on the fringes of Her circle, but they would never have accepted him as one of their own, not them, with their noble backgrounds.  They regarded him as little more than a performing monkey, someone there for their own amusement. The nobility can be cruel and unfeeling. Poor little Smeaton. His talent will be his undoing.   Not for the first time, I am glad that I have the kind of looks which no one notices. I can fade into the background, like a humble piece of furniture.

 

 “What did he look like, Gerta?” asked the meat cook, who was sweating by the fire when I went to walk past, to return my bucket to the stores area.

 “He looked like Master Cromwell”, I replied.

 “Now don’t get lippy, girl”, he said “Did he look harassed?  Worried?”

 “Well he was deep in thought”, I said “It was a very fleeting look.  I didn’t want to detain him, he looked like a man with a lot on his mind”.

 The others exchanged glances.  Clearly they saw something significant in all this, but at the moment they’re seeing something significant in everything.   A cock crowing probably has significance.

 I returned my mop and bucket to the stores, and then took advantage of them all being distracted to slip out into the garden for a little while.   It was sunny, but the air was still too much on the cold side for my liking. I went over to the fruit trees and admired the apple blossom, which is now in full petal.  I love this time of year. I surreptitiously picked a small sprig of the blossom, and slipped it into my apron pocket.

 I wish I could gently walk His Majesty around the gardens and show him the joys and the loving solace of Nature.  I feel sorry for him, but I could never voice that aloud. It’s probably treasonous, so much is these days. It is treasonous to think of the King as anything other than all-mighty and all-powerful, like the Good Lord Himself.  But I know how sick he is. I have conversed with the maids and the stewards of the royal bedchamber. He has never recovered from that terrible accident he had whilst jousting back in the New Year. It has affected him completely, body and soul.   It seems to have aged him overnight. And those stupid physicians don’t know what they’re doing. Their treatments are often worse than the ailments! He needs a healthier life, with gentle exercise and good food, and freedom from care. But I know he cannot hope to attain that in this life, not whilst he wears the crown.   His rages are because he is in constant pain, and because he is lonely, and frightened for the future. I have known humble families who produce hordes of strong, healthy sons with no trouble at all, and yet he, the great ruler, seems to have an underwhelming seed. He must feel that humiliation acutely.

 My skin prickles.  I feel someone watching me.  I turn round in agitation. There is no one else in this part of the garden, but on instinct I look up at the upper windows.   I am horrified to find I am being watched from a part of the palace which I know to be the Queen’s chambers. I see a pale face staring down at me from behind the latticed glass.  I get only the briefest of glimpses before she backs away from the window. I am shocked by how gaunt and haggard she looks. I have only before seen her in the distance, and then I’ve been dazzled by her gorgeous gowns and jewels and headdresses.  I had heard rumours that she’s lost her looks, that she now looks old and decayed, but I hadn’t seen it for myself. There were dark shadows around her eyes. She was emaciated. She looked halfway to her grave.

 I feel a cold shiver run through my entire body, and I rub my arms in their calico sleeves.   I decide to go back indoors, and seek the sanctuary of the service areas. I am unlikely to encounter her there.

 

Later

 

It is very late.  I have made up my customary makeshift bed, comprised of my spare clothing, on a small stone landing in the attic, which is outside one of the rooms belonging to the ladies-in-waiting.  I think it may even have been Mistress Anne’s room at one time. I am so glad that Winter is over. There were times when the stone floor was so cold that I feared I would end up with chronic rheumatism, like my poor dear Mother did.

 In the shaft of moonlight which comes through the narrow window, I have prayed for His Majesty The King.  I have also prayed for little Smeaton. There is still no sign of him, and I have been listening out for news of him all day.  I am deeply worried as to what they may have done with him. We poor folk are so at the mercy of Them.

 I yearn for some soft cushions to comfort my aching bones, and yet the curious thing is, that for all my lack of luxury, I would not trade places with that Lady in the sumptuous apartments on the floor below me.   I have a strong feeling that they are lining her up for a sacrifice, and it is that feeling which has been permeating the palace all day. I am filled with foreboding as to what the next few days may bring.

 

May Day

 

 The Nobs all went off for their traditional May Day joust today.  I heard whilst I was breaking my fast that His Majesty looked relaxed and jolly, which is pleasing news.  I can imagine him riding through the sun-dappled trees, his head thrown back as he gives one of his hearty laughs.  He’s had such an awful time of it this year so far that he deserves a bit of pleasure. Someone said he was slapping Master Norris on the shoulder, in a very brotherly way, so that’s good news.  There have been so many wild rumours of late that the King was being strangely suspicious, even paranoid, of his friends. The only thing that still gives me concern is that there is STILL no sign of little Smeaton.  This is very odd indeed.

 Later this morning I managed to have a chat with Agnes, one of the upstairs maids.  One of her duties is to sweep the passageway which connects the King’s private rooms with Hers.   We managed to secrete ourselves in an alcove and talked in hurried whispers. Sometimes it’s easy to believe that Master Cromwell has found some way of making the very walls themselves eavesdrop on us round here.  Nothing would surprise me where he’s concerned. He has his spies everywhere.

 “Things are still developing apace round here”, said Agnes “The trip to France has been called off, either that or the King is threatening to go alone.  Either way it’s not good news for Her is it”.

 “I wouldn’t be in her shoes for anything”, I said.

 “She flew too close to the sun that’s her trouble”, said Agnes “Couldn’t be happy with just a bit of slap and tickle like her sister was.  No, Her Ladyship had to go and get ideas above herself. Too good for a quick roll in the hay, nothing but Queenship was good enough for her”.

 “Ssh!” I said “You could get into awful trouble talking like that.  She’s not gone yet y’know”.

 “I don’t care”, said Agnes, stubbornly “I’m not going to be around here for much longer.  I think I’m with child”.

 I gave a little muffled squeal and kissed her in delight.

 “If that is the case”, said Agnes “I’ll go back to my parents’ farm, and stay there.  I’ve had enough of this Court life. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Everyone frightened of their own shadow, and scared to bloomin’ well speak all the time.  It’s not natural. It’s no way to live”.

 “What will your father say when he finds out?”

 “Oh he’ll grumble a bit at first no doubt, but he’ll soon come round, particularly when I tell him it’ll be another pair of hands to help out around the farm.  I tell you this Gerta, no child of mine is ever coming near this place, that’s for sure. It’s not been the same since the old Queen went. I miss her, terrible shame it was when she died.  I felt really heartbroken when I heard”.

 “I know what you mean”, I said, and dropped my voice even lower “Between you and me, I think the King still loves her.  He was married to her for an awful long time. And that fall he had, at the January joust, came very soon after he heard she’d passed over”.

 “That Witch put a spell on him, I swear it”, said Agnes “Either that or she used a whore’s tactics to snare him, probably some little bedroom tricks she picked up in France”.

 “Ssh!” I said, although I couldn’t help giggling as well.

 Suddenly the doors to the Queen’s ante-room were flung open, and a couple of her snooty, silly ladies-in-waiting emerged.  We pressed ourselves further back into the alcove, as far as we could go, but they were too engrossed in their own conversation to pay any attention to us, and they swept past us in a swirl of silks and velvets.  Unfortunately we couldn’t catch anything of what they were saying, because they were whispering too. It seems everybody whispers around here these days.

 

Late Afternoon

 

 The King came home early!!  And he didn’t ride back, he came by river, so everyone’s assuming he was in a hurry to get here.  The whole palace is buzzing with what could have happened at the May Day joust.

 “He was in a foul mood too”, said one of the pages, who had been in attendance in the main courtyard, when the royal party returned “I wouldn’t want to be one of his private chamber staff this evening.  Had a face like thunder he did”.

 The Queen didn’t return with him, which has only made the grapevine even more frenzied.  She came on along a bit later, with her own retinue. What on earth is going on??

 

May the 2nd

 

 What a turbulent day.  It started at the very first cold grey light of dawn.  When I first woke up I had a feeling that something huge had happened.  When I got down to the main kitchen I found the spit-turner at the fire beaming all over his face, with that “I know something you don’t know” look about him.  

 “What’s happened now?” I said, in no mood to play games.

 “You may well ask”, said the meat-cook “Norris has been carted off to the Tower, happened when it was barely light”.

 “Master Norris?” I gasped “But why?”

 “Dunno”, said the meat-cook “Rumour is the King got handed some note whilst he was watching the joust yesterday, and he’s never been the same since.  Doesn’t take a genius to see the note must have been about Norris and …”

 “Hey now be careful”, said red-faced old Alice, who plucks the fowl, and who always seems to be covered in feathers “It doesn’t take much to set the King off at the moment.  We would all do wise to be careful”.

 “I’m sick of being careful round here”, said the meat-cook, slapping some sorry-looking skinny birds onto the table “This place is nothing like it used to be.  We used to have some right old laughs in the old days”.

 “Is there any news of Mark Smeaton?” I asked.  I have been praying for little Smeaton almost constantly since he disappeared.

 “Gone to the Tower as well”, said meat-cook “You won’t be seeing him back here again.  Going down like ninepins they are. That’s the Nobs for you. Knife each other in the back quicker than … well quicker than you can say knife.  No honour amongst thieves”.

 “Now watch it!” said old Alice, pointing a finger at him “You won’t half get into trouble one of these days, running off with that big fat mouth of yours.  It wasn’t that long ago the King had his cook boiled alive! Yes, think on that. Be careful you don’t meet the same fate”.

 “Blah!” said meat-cook, cuffing the spit-boy round the ear “You mark my words, SHE [he raised his eyes upwards, in the general direction of the Queen’s apartments] will be gone as well before the day is out.  If the rumours are true then she’s been making His Majesty look a right old fool, a cuckold, and he won’t take too kindly to that. No man would”.

 “Oh no”, Agnes had been coming into the room, and she paused with horror “Don’t say that!”

 “What’s it to you?” said meat-cook “You haven’t had a good word to say about that concubine ever since you’ve been here.  Don’t try and tell me you now feel sorry for her!”

 “I was thinking of her little daughter, the Princess Elizabeth”, said Agnes “She’s not even three-years-old yet, that’s far too young to lose a mother”.

 “Huh, and what about all the other little chavvies who lose their mothers?” said meat-cook “I don’t notice you crying your eyes out over them.  Don’t you worry about that ginger-headed brat. She’ll be alright, she’ll always have someone to wipe her arse for her”.

 “Now that’s enough!” said old Alice “There’s enough tension and bad feeling round here at the moment, without you adding to it.  Let’s all just try and calm down a bit shall we”.

 “Blah, bloody women!” said meat-cook “All the problems in the world can be put down to bloody women.  Sometimes I wish I was a monk”.

 “Sometimes I wish you were as well!” said old Alice.

 

 Late in the morning, the Queen and her ladies went out into the grounds to watch a tennis-match.  By this point it was palpable that something wasn’t right, and I couldn’t help hoping that she was making the most of one of her last moments of pleasure.   It was nigh-on intolerable, like waiting for a storm to break. Things couldn’t carry on as they were, or we’d all descend into a pit of hysteria.

 At two o’clock in the afternoon, the storm did indeed break, and I have never known anything like it.   Orders were put out that the tide had turned on the river, and that the Queen was to be bustled off to the Tower!  Just as she was, in the clothes she was standing up in! It felt as though every window in the palace which overlooked the river was clogged up with faces all peering out trying to get a glimpse of her.  

 I sneaked into one of the galleries, as it had many windows and I felt it was my best chance of getting a view.   And I saw her! She was swathed in a hooded cloak, as though it was the depths of Winter, but I managed to get a brief glimpse of her face.  She looked pale, pinched and highly anxious. As well she might, poor lady. Yes it’s true, I felt sorry for her, even though my love for the late Queen Katherine, whom she had cruelly usurped, remained undiminished.   I knew she had no chance of returning from the Tower. I suppose there’s an outside chance the King might be merciful, and allow her to go to a nunnery, but it’s much more likely that she faces – God forbid! – a burning or a beheading.  Oh how the mighty have fallen! And it gives me no pleasure to record that. I have enough imagination to know how terrified she must be, and how concerned she must be for her loved ones. These are such dangerous times.

 After that, everything felt very flat.  The Queen, the Dark Lady, the royal concubine, was gone, and many were relieved, as they had hated her.  It was as if a troublesome spirit had finally been exorcised. And yet some of us were left with a feeling of confusion and  trepidation. What happens now?

 

4th of May

 

 The whole palace is in a state of jangled nerves.  I overheard someone joking earlier that at this rate everybody will be in the Tower, and there will be no one left here but His Majesty!  I have lost count of how many men close to the Queen have been arrested, including even her brother, Lord Rochford! Accused of incest with her!   That is an appalling accusation. She was close to her brother, and sometimes I thought they were like a pair of overgrown giggling spoilt brats, but INCEST??

 “I don’t know what to believe anymore”, said Old Alice “There are some dark forces at work round here, I can tell you”.

 “But incest?!” I exclaimed.

 “The Boleyns have always been a peculiar lot”, mumbled meat-cook, who seemed less gobby and more reserved than usual today “Old man Boleyn would have sold his daughters to the Devil himself if he thought he could get a few cushy titles out of it”.  

 It was all getting to me too much.  I was finding the palace corridors dark, cold and oppressive.  I could well believe in the sinister forces Old Alice had mentioned.  At any chance I could I escaped to the garden, but I didn’t get much easing of tension there either.  I could only think of the Queen holed up in the Tower, and wondering if she would ever get to stroll in a sunlit garden again.   How we take these simple little pleasure for granted! The beauty of the time of year seemed to be mocking us all. Would I be feeling all this as much if it was the depths of Winter?  I don’t know.

 I had struck up a chatting acquaintance with Blanche, who does some of the finer laundry and mending from the Queen’s apartments.  She told me that the Queen wasn’t incarcerated in a windowless dungeon, but in the sumptuous rooms she had occupied just before her Coronation.  What a cruel irony!

 “It’s all mayhem in here at the moment”, she said.

 We were standing on the landing outside the main doors of the Queen’s rooms.  Everything was in turmoil. Maids were constantly marching out, carrying armfuls of clothes and bedding.

 “What’s happening?” I asked “Where are they taking all her things?”

 “I don’t know yet”, Blanche shrugged “We’re under orders to strip the rooms of all her belongings.  And anything with the letter ‘A’ on it has to be unpicked or discarded as well. It’s as if her whole identity’s being erased.  He’s really determined to be shot of her”, she gave a shiver “This is what happens when Love dies. A few years ago he would have handed his entire Kingdom to her on a plate, now he wants every trace of her removed.  Wouldn’t surprise me if he made it an offence to mention her name in future. Makes me glad I’ve never had any man infatuated with me, I can tell you, not if this is what happens”.

 “How is she?” I said “Does anyone know?”

 “Not good”, she dropped her voice to a whisper “Some right old cats have been put in to look after her, and they’re all on orders to spy on her every move.  None of them like her. They’re determined to make her suffer. They’re loving it. Anyway, I’d better get on. Probably best not to stand around talking for too long.  We could probably get arrested just for that at the moment!”

 “Master Smeaton”, I said, quickly “Any news of him?”

 “Put him out of your mind”, she said “We won’t be seeing him again”.

 

9th of May

 

 It has been a horrible atmosphere in the palace for the past few days.   There is a tomb-like silence, and it’s as if we’re almost afraid to make a noise when we walk down the stone corridors.   His Majesty has been closeted in his rooms, conferring with various powerful men. Sometimes I think I would like to be a fly on the wall, but at other times I think I would rather not know what is going on.  We’ll find out soon enough.

 It has been only a week since the Lady was taken to the Tower, and yet it feels like a year.  Life has been turned upside down. There is no more music, no more sports, no more sounds of laughter or singing wafting down the stairways.   I try and escape into the gardens as often as I can, just so that I can sit for a while and listen to the birdsong, as a respite from the gloomy atmosphere indoors.  The weather has been glorious, as if it’s mocking us. I yearn for the days when His Majesty would have been out playing tennis with his friends, and returning to the palace with his shirt drenched in sweat, and roaring with laughter and bonhomie.   What on earth has gone wrong?

 Many blame the Queen.  “She’s a witch, she put him under a spell”, said the meat-cook “And now he’s woken up from it, that’s all”.   I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It takes two to dance, when all’s said and done. The Queen was bewitching, but … oh I’m already referring to her in the past tense.  But it feels at the moment as if she’s halfway out of this world already.

 Yesterday I was roped into helping with the final scrub-out of the Queen’s apartments.  All of her belongings have been removed. There is no trace of her identity there anymore.  The rooms stand almost empty, with the windows flung open, the walls bare, and the curtains flapping in the breeze.   Agnes and I speculated (in whispers) as to who would occupy the rooms next.

 “My money’s on Mistress Seymour, the Wiltshire girl”, I said “His Majesty has been putting some yearning looks in her direction for months”.  

 “I heard the Lady caught him spooning with her one day”, said Agnes “She had hysterics about it”.  

 “Hm, when I think of how many times Queen Katherine had to turn a blind eye to his antics”.

 “That’s what the King said at the time!”

 Agnes leaned in closer to me.

 “I’ll tell you something”, she said “If Seymour does take up the mantle, things will be very different round here.  She’s a priggish little thing. Always looks as if she’s chewing on a wasp to me. There won’t be any of the gay old times the Lady and her coterie engaged in, that’s for sure”.

 “Well perhaps things might calm down a bit”, I sighed.

 “God help her if she doesn’t give him a son either though!” said Agnes “That’s all he cares about these days, he’s obsessed.  Anyway, keep an eye out for her. She’s sly. I never trust those prim, quiet ones, they always seem to be looking at you out of the corner of their eye, sizing you up.  Ugh!”

 

11th of May

 

 The full list of charges against the Queen has been published, and it is as long as your arm.  She must have been a very busy lady these past couple of years to have fitted all that in! How in God’s name she managed to have sex with all and sundry, as well as plotted against the King, whilst she was also doing Queen’s duties, going on royal progresses, trying to conceive a royal baby, and sewing shirts for the poor is beyond me.   But it seems His Majesty is so determined to be shot of her that he’ll accuse her of every crime in the land. If he can’t find one charge to stick, then he’ll find another.

 “I know for a fact she couldn’t have had sex with Mark Smeaton this time last year”, Agnes hissed, during one of our hiding-in-the-alcove chats “They weren’t even in the same palace!  And why would she have committed incest with her brother just before Christmas, when she knew she was already pregnant with the King’s child? It doesn’t make sense!”

 “It seems things don’t have to make sense these days”, I said “It’s also been said that last All Hallow’s Eve she and her lovers conspired to take the King’s life.  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the significance of the date. The old witchcraft charge. When all else fails resort to that one”.

 “Has he forgotten that she’s the mother of his child?” snapped Agnes.

 “He doesn’t want to be reminded of the child”, I said “It reminds him that he went through all that, divided the country, alienated the Church, just to end up with another daughter”.

 “I suppose it’s never occurred to him that he might not be able to father a son?”, said Agnes “All men are fools!”

 I found it very hard to disagree with her by that point.

 

 At night I have been remembering all of them currently incarcerated in the Tower in my prayers.  Even the King can’t get into my thoughts and dictate who I can pray for, although I remember him too.  Whatever the outcome of all this – and it’s impossible not to think it will be utterly horrific – then he will have to live with it on his conscience for the rest of his life.  And that will be an enormous cross to bear. I don’t believe he will ever be truly happy again.

 In the still watches of the night I find the Lady constantly in my thoughts.  No amount of comfortable rooms will be able to make up for the strain she must be under.  She must know she’s under a sentence of death already, and she has those loathsome, hate-filled old harridans spying on her every move.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she went off her head, living under that kind of strain.

 I try not to get carried away on a wave of sentiment.  Agnes is already doing that enough for both of us. I often come across her looking as if she’s been weeping, and she’s always hastily rubbing her eyes with her apron.  Her condition won’t help. My Mother used to say her emotions were all over the place when she was expecting me.

 I remind myself of all the times I really disliked Anne Boleyn, of how badly she treated the old Queen.  She demanded her jewels, she demanded the royal christening robes for Princess Elizabeth, and, cruellest of all, she refused to let her see her daughter, Mary.  There were times when she was a complete cow, quite frankly. But I wonder how much of the time she was being coerced by her family. Meat-Cook was right about one thing.  Old Boleyn would sell his own grandmother if he could get a good price for her. And the same goes for most of the men in that family, including that evil old swine the Duke of Norfolk, Anne’s uncle.   As my father would have said, “I wouldn’t give you house-room for the lot of ‘em”. Anne must have been under enormous pressure to bring home the bacon, as the saying goes. As soon as the King clapped eyes on her, she was doomed.  Her life wasn’t her own anymore.

 And now I’m thinking of her as “Anne”, whereas before it’s always been the Lady, even the Dark Lady, the Witch.  I don’t go as far as some who’ve called her the Night Crow, and the Boleyn Whore, but I’ve never … up until now … thought of her simply as Anne.   There was always something a bit supernatural about her, as though she couldn’t possibly be just a normal flesh-and-blood woman. But all that has changed now.   I think of her as a frightened woman, possibly wrongly maligned, not just in fear of her own life, but concerned for her daughter, and for her mother, who I’ve heard is not well at all.  

 And I’m pretty sure Queen Katherine, if she was here, would be feeling sorry for her too.  She knew from an early age how ruthless royal life can be. Her mother had been a warrior queen, barely getting out of the saddle long enough to give birth.   Queen Katherine would have forgiven her, and now so must I. Whatever sins she has committed in the past, Anne, the girl from Hever, doesn’t deserve to be in this current predicament.  

 

18th of May

 

 I couldn’t record my thoughts whilst the Trial was on, as it was all too horrendous.   And so far it has resulted in five healthy men in the prime of life being put to death.  I have dreamt of the Tower being awash with blood, and it must have resembled a butcher’s shop that day.   All I could think of was headless bodies being bundled into makeshift coffins. Such a waste of life.

 At the Queen’s trial her own father – HER OWN FATHER – sat in judgement on her.   He sat there in his red robes, and watched his own daughter being condemned to death.   Shortly before he had likewise sat and watched his own son going the same way. What is running in the veins of a man like that?  Because I can’t believe he’s human. I could only think of their poor mother, back home in Hever Castle, what on earth must she be feeling?  Two of her precious children to be put to death on the scaffold. Truly, we do live in corrupt, barbarous times. I have to be so careful where I conceal this scroll of paper.  If it were to be discovered, I too might find myself in the Tower. My Mother taught me to read and write because she felt it would give me advantages in life. How darkly ironic it would be if it led to my doom instead!  Even just writing these words could be seen as treasonous.

 Public opinion has swung dramatically in the Queen’s favour.  All along the people have reviled her for taking Queen Katherine’s place, but now she has gone from the Harlot, the Witch, to That Poor Lady In The Tower.  She is now the wronged wife and mother, being ruthlessly put aside for another, just as Queen Katherine had been. Poor Anne. She must have yearned to be loved and respected by the people, only for it to come at a terrible price.  I have heard a rumour that Cromwell has warned His Majesty that it would probably be best if he wasn’t seen in public for a while. The King must be grievously upset by this news. He has always been popular with the common man. They love his boisterous laugh, his hearty appetites, his love of a good time, they see him as one of their own.  This will dismay him … or then again perhaps he’s so obsessed with Mistress Seymour that he doesn’t care. When the King gets a fixation in his head it seems nothing can distract him. Nothing.

 

 Early this morning I was dusting the main stairs, which connect the royal apartments to the private chapel on the first floor.   Suddenly I heard the doors flung open above me and a posse of men emerged. The King was amongst them! I couldn’t afford to be seen.  I could have just turned my back and faced the wall, as we are meant to do sometimes, but even that didn’t seem to be enough. I just felt it wasn’t wise at the moment to draw attention to myself in any way.  So instead I slipped through a nearby door into the gallery, and flattened myself against the wall.

 “What is taking so long?” the King roared, as they came down the steps.

 “It is not yet 8 o’clock, Your Majesty”, Cromwell replied “There is still over an hour to go”.

 “It is days like this where Time seems to slow to a veritable crawl”, said the King “I am constantly listening out for the cannon.  I don’t want to miss it. I want to know the very moment I am free of her”.

 The men passed into the private chapel and closed the door behind them.  I breathed a sigh of relief, and found I had been clutching my dusting-rag to my chest so fiercely that my hand ached.

 

Later

 

 The execution has been postponed until tomorrow!  The headsman has been delayed on the road and can’t get here today.   What a cruel blow for the Queen. She will now have to go through it all again, when she could have been at peace by now.  Either that, or she might be thinking that she is heading for a reprieve, which would be too cruel, as I’m pretty certain there is no chance whatsoever of the King granting her that.  

 Everyone has been very quiet today.  There is an undercurrent that something is happening which should not be happening, but there is nothing we can do about it.  On reflection, I think her Fate was sealed from the moment she was arrested. Soon after she was bundled off to the Tower, her rooms were cleared out and her household disbanded.  That would never have happened if there had been the slightest chance she would be declared innocent.

 It is very late.  I am scribbling using the moonlight coming through the narrow little window as my only source of  illumination. I can hear loud raucous voices coming from the direction of the river, which must mean the King is on his way home.  He has spent the evening dining with Mistress Seymour. As far as he is concerned he is now a free man in all but name. Even if he now hates Anne, how can he go merrymaking whilst she is in the Tower, only a few hours from death?  Would it have hurt him so much to have delayed it a couple of days? I feel like I am losing all the respect I ever had for him, and yet I know how dangerous it is to record such thoughts here. I must try and seek sleep. Tomorrow will be a very long day.

 

The 19th of May

 

 I couldn’t eat first thing this morning, which is very unusual for me, as I normally have a hearty appetite.  But the thought of any kind of sustenance made me feel sick. I avoided the kitchens. I didn’t want to run the slightest risk of hearing Meat-Cook making one of his pathetic remarks, or Agnes blubbing into her apron.  Later I will no doubt feel strong enough to face them, but not at the moment.

 It felt as though all of us were constantly ear-cocked, listening out for the sound of the cannon down on the Tower wharf, which would tell us that the dreadful deed had been finally done.   I slipped out into the kitchen gardens, and met the young lad who is one of the Pages in the King’s apartments. He is a slender, fair-haired little thing. I often think he seems like a pretty girl in men’s attire.  He was sitting on a low wall, staring thoughtfully ahead.

 “They’ve all gone to the Tower”, he said, when he saw me “All of them.  Except the King”.

 “All of the nobs?” I asked.

 “Yes”, he said “It’s the hottest show in town, the first time a queen has ever been executed in England, so they all wanted to be there to witness it.  The sadistic bastards”.

 “Ssh!” I said, horrified, flapping my apron at him.

 “S’alright”, he said “No one around to hear me, might as well take advantage of not having old Cromwell and his henchmen around spying on us all the time.   Makes a change. It must be a rare event for His Majesty to have some time all to himself. I heard him pacing up and down up there earlier”.

 “I can’t imagine it’s his conscience pricking him”, I muttered, sitting down on the wall “And you didn’t hear me say that!  For all I know you might be in Cromwell’s pay”.

 “Not me”, he said “I leave all that stuff well alone.  No good ever comes to the likes of us meddling in Their business.  Leave ‘em to it, I say. I’m learning the guitar. I fancy meself as a minstrel”.

 We both sat for a moment, looking up at the cloudless blue sky.  I imagined her walking out of the Queen’s House at the Tower, seeing the scaffold and the headsman in front of her.  Hearing the birdsong around her, smelling the scent of the may-flowers, and knowing that she was about to die.

 “I dreamt about her last night”, he said “I could see her head, with all its bits hanging out”.

 “Now stop that!” I said “There’s going to be quite enough of all that before the day is out.  Anymore remarks like that and I’ll box your ears, young man!”

 “Fair enough”, he shrugged.

 And then we heard it.  The cannon-fire. It was over.   I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears.

 

 By the time I had composed myself and finished my morning chores, the palace gossip mill was churning away at full tilt.  Every detail of the Queen’s execution was seized upon and discussed at great length. When I reached the kitchens for my Noon victuals, everyone was twittering away like an aviary of excitable birds.  

 “They hadn’t even got a coffin for her?!” Old Alice was shouting, shocked.

 “Bundled her into an old arrow-chest”, said a despatch-rider, who was wolfing down bread and cheese at the table “That was all they had”.

 “An old arrow-chest?!” Old Alice sounded angry enough to confront the King himself “She was the Queen!  You don’t go putting queens into old arrow-chests, no matter what you think they’ve done!”

 “Where have they buried her?” asked Agnes, who was red-nosed and red-eyed from crying.

 “They hadn’t thought that one out either”, said the despatch-rider “Last I heard they were going to put her under the altar in the chapel there”.

 “That’s a bloody disgrace!” said Old Alice “She should’ve been given a decent funeral at least!  This lot … they don’t give a toss about anybody. No respect. No feelings”.

 “Alice, pipe down”, said Meat-Cook, who wasn’t as snide and abrasive as I had expected him to be.  If anything, he seemed unnaturally quiet “You’ll get yourself into trouble if you carry on like that”.

 “See if I care”, said Old Alice “There’s not much They can do to me at my age”.

 “Don’t bank on it”, said the despatch-rider “A dungeon in the Tower wouldn’t do your old bones any good.  He’s right, tone it down. The deed is done, nothing we can do about it now”.

 “I heard she was wearing a gabled hood”, said Agnes, after blowing her nose noisily “Why would the Queen have worn a gabled hood?  That wasn’t her style at all, she preferred French hoods”.

 “Don’t ask me”, said the despatch-rider “I’m not clued up on women’s garments.  I suppose it doesn’t matter much what her head-gear is now, does it!” And he gave a roar of laughter, his big mouth stuffed full of bread.

 “Men!” said Old Alice.

 

WhitSunday

 

 Perhaps, as to be expected, the King didn’t waste any time grieving over the Lady Anne.  He became betrothed to Mistress Seymour the very next day! By that point I think I was beyond being shocked where he’s concerned.   He seemed to regard Anne as a dark, fantasy interlude in his life, and one where – if we knew what was good for us – we would move on from it too.  

 And the curious thing is that, once the shock of execution day had passed, we did all move on.  It was as if the storm had passed. We weren’t likely to forget her in a hurry, but for those of us on the lower rungs of the ladder, I suppose it doesn’t really matter much who occupies the Queen’s apartments.   And if Mistress Seymour makes the King happy, then he’ll be easier to work for no doubt. I can’t in all honesty say I will like her though. It takes a pretty cold bitch to step into a dead woman’s shoes so quickly and so willingly.

 Agnes has gone back to her father’s farm.  We had a brief, hurried goodbye one morning, as she set off with her bundle for the wharf.

 “If you get fed up with it here”, she said “Come and find me in the Essex countryside.  We could always do with another pair of hands around the place”.

 I haven’t made up my mind what I’m doing yet, but I thanked her and said I would certainly bear it in mind.  

 “We’re the lucky ones really, Gerta”, she said “With our skills we’ll always be able to find work.  The nobs will always need their piss-pots emptying for them when all’s said and done. The Lady Anne’s sister had the right idea, she disappeared into the countryside and stuck to breeding, and that’s what I’m doing”.

 I was pleased she had got her spirits back, and I said I would miss her around the place.

 

 And now it is WhitSunday at the beginning of June, and the new Queen has been declared.  His Majesty married her here in the palace a few days ago. He doesn’t believe in wasting time.  A coronation has been postponed though because there are rumours that plague has broken out in the city.  

 Sometimes there is a bit of whispering that the Lady Anne’s dark-eyed ghost has been seen around parts of the palace, but I don’t know how much to believe it.   (There is also a wild rumour going round that, on the day of the execution, the tapers around Queen Katherine’s tomb lit all by themselves).  These ethereal rumours are all that is left of her, apart from the little red-haired princess of course. It is as if she had never existed in the first place, that the years of turmoil she had brought in her wake had never happened.  

 “Don’t you believe it”, said Blanche, who was busy stitching the letter ‘J’ to various pillows and cushions “SHE won’t be forgotten in a hurry, I can tell you that, and I can’t see this one [meaning Mistress Seymour] overshadowing her”.

 And so the dust settles again.  For the time being anyway.

 

THE END

 

 

One thing that used to irritate me a bit, when I was still knocking about Twitter, was how some of the TV nostalgia buffs would try and make out how British comedy of recent years has been nothing but rubbish, of how there has been no genuinely funny comedy since the days of Fawlty Towers. This is completely untrue. If anything, I would argue that the past 20 years has seen some of the best comedy we’ve ever produced in these isles. This should be reassuring news for those who fear that political correctness has stifled humour. I don’t think it can ever really stifle humour, you probably just might have to look more outside the primetime mainstream for it, that’s all.

What follows is a straightforward list of my favourite sitcoms and comedy performers of the past 40-50 years. I haven’t added any commentary as otherwise it would be just me going “oh I love this!” over and over again. The list is heavily weighted towards British and Irish comedy, and perhaps not much in the way of American stuff. This isn’t because I have anything against it, but simply because much of it – such as Friends or Frazier for instance – I just never really got into. It didn’t happen. Although, for the record, I do think the US remake of The Office was every bit as good as the Brit version, and it has to be said that the Americans are outdoing us when it comes to political satire at the moment.

I have a penchant for anarchic or surreal comedy, or anything that pokes fun at the absurdities of life. I am really not interested in sentimental schmaltz [Miranda’s love life for instance], or worthy, naggy sitcoms which are Making A Social Point, like something Carla Lane had written on a bad day. I almost lost the plot with one fairly recent Channel 4 sitcom (the name of which escapes me, thank God) which included the words “if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this programme” and a Samaritans number right at the end of the closing credits!! Please don’t email me about the importance of Raising Issues in a TV programme. I ask only one thing of comedy, and that is that It Makes Me Laugh. If I can laugh I don’t need a Samaritans number.

Compiling a list like is very much a personal choice, and as such can be a bit of a potential minefield. All I can say is this, if you violently object to any of my choices, or exclusions, then MAKE UP YOUR OWN LIST!! Anyway, here goes:

  • Absolutely Fabulous
  • Alan Partridge
  • Benny Hill
  • Big School
  • Big Train
  • Bill Hicks
  • Blackadder
  • Black Books
  • Bottom
  • The Carry Ons
  • Catherine Tate
  • Chris Rock
  • Count Arthur Strong
  • Dad’s Army
  • Dave Allen At Large
  • Dave Lamb (narrator of Come Dine With Me)
  • Derek
  • Detectorists
  • Father Ted
  • Fawlty Towers
  • Frankie Howerd
  • The Good Life
  • The Grumbleweeds (radio show)
  • Human Remains
  • Kathy Burke
  • Katy Brand
  • Lee Evans
  • Man About The House
  • Monty Python
  • MysteryScienceTheater3000
  • The New Statesman
  • Nighty Night
  • The Office
  • Open All Hours
  • Peep Show
  • Phoenix Nights
  • Plebs*
  • Sean Lock
  • Smack The Pony
  • Spike Milligan
  • Steptoe & Son
  • Sykes
  • That Mitchell & Webb Look
  • Toast Of London
  • To The Manor Born
  • The Trip … with Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden
  • The Two Ronnies
  • Vids … with Nigel Buckland and Stef Gardiner**
  • The Windsors
  • Yes Minister

*Plebs is rapidly going down as one of my favourite comedies of all time. I love everything about it, and its largely young cast fill me with hope for the future, that it won’t be the humourless, dried-up earnest nonsense some of us have feared at times.

**Vids was a late-night video review show, made on a shoestring budget, which ran on Channel 4 in the late 1990s. It built up a small but devoted following, due to its totally anarchic nature, and the lovable antics of its two presenters. It was totally messed around by Channel 4, who never gave it a set time, so it often got relegated to the depths of the night. Finding some episodes on YouTube in recent months has felt like meeting up with old friends. I have no idea what Channel 4 show late at night anymore – I’ve got Netflix – but as the late Paula Yates would no doubt have put it, it’s probably some right load of old poo instead.

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Lorks! conspiracy theories seem to be everywhere at the moment, we can’t move for them.  And they seem to be growing daily.   I’ve long had an interest in them as a strange, fascinating phenomenon of our times.  Anyway, quite by chance I came across this short video – it runs at approx 30 minutes in length – on YouTube, and it sounded interesting.  For those that don’t know, Erik Medhus was a young American guy who took his own life in 2009, at the tender age of 20.  Since then his mother, Elisa, a qualified physician, claims to have been in constant contact with him, and Erik has given a huge amount of information about the Other Side.

Elisa’s YouTube channel, named Channeling Erik, contains some fascinating interviews.   It is entirely up to you what you make of it all.  I mention it with no judgement, other than that I find it very interesting.  When it comes to the After-Life – and conspiracies themselves for that matter – I am wholly open-minded.  I’ve lost enough loved ones myself to want to believe it’s all real, but at the same time I am always uncomfortably aware of the fact that it could all just be wishful thinking.    Sometimes it’s a right pain having a foot in both camps.

On 6 January 2016 a video was posted in which Elisa, via a medium, quizzed Erik about the truth behind some of the world’s most famous conspiracy theories.  The answers were well-balanced, and thought-provoking.  Of course you could just go and watch the video for yourself, and I recommend you do so, as some of the answers were a lot more complex than I’ve presented here, but I thought I’d just present a brief summary of the results.

The Conspiracies:

9/11   Erik asserts there was no secret government involvement, but that the government did have information which could have prevented it from happening.

Moon Landings    The Moon Landings actually happened, but some of the live footage was adjusted at a later date, as it was not of good enough quality.

Is There Life On Mars?   Yes there is, molecular life.  There may well have been more advanced life there a long time ago.

Is CERN a portal / a stargate?   No.

Is HAARP responsible for mind-control?   HAARP has had some involvement in odd things that have been happening world-wide, including (curiously) Gulf War Syndrome.  No overt mind-control agenda though.

Chemtrails   Yes they are a thing, but again it’s not about mind-control of the populace, it’s more a form of weather-control.  It’s mainly to protect the atmosphere against global warming.

FEMA death-camps   There has long been some grisly speculation about FEMA stockpiling coffins and building concentration camps.  Erik asserts that some of this has been a “risk management” process by the United States government, as a contingency plan in case WW3 were to break out.  He makes the intriguing comment that WW3 “has been trying to be born” (you can say that again!), but that it won’t actually happen.  The powers-that-be believe that if it were to happen, it would not be about guns and the military, but far more likely to be a chemical/biological war.

JFK   The United States government hired some dubious elements to carry out the hit.  Erik refuses to elaborate any further on this, but in another video on the same channel – the Marilyn Monroe one – there are mentions of a combined CIA/Mafia operation.

Was AIDS invented by the US government to curb gays and the black population?   There is no conspiracy about AIDS.

Is the Shroud of Turin genuine?   It is not the real shroud of Jesus.  The real one is “underground”, possibly in a catacomb, possibly in Italy.

Is Fluoride being put into public water to cause a dumbing-down of the populace?  No, it was put in to make money, pure and simple, and to put dentistry on the map.

Global Warming    Is real, it is not a hoax.  60-70% of it is man-made.  Erik asserts that the generation who are currently toddlers will be the ones who “lick it”, kick it into touch.  I do hope so.

Did Shakespeare write all his own plays?   Some of them, and others were a joint collaboration with an aristocrat who couldn’t be open about it at the time.  Shakespeare was in control of “the longer ones”, but the sonnets in particular were a collaboration (I once saw a plausible argument about Christopher Marlowe being the real author of the sonnets).  About 45% of the output was written solely by good old Will of Stratford*.

Is the United States government doing anything they don’t want people to know about?  Yes, mainly involving the movement of money, billions of dollars-worth of gold hidden in other countries.  This has been going on now for several decades, starting about 7 presidents back (presumably counting as of the beginning of 2016 when this video was made).

There’s enough there to start several heated arguments already!!   I was quite pleasantly surprised at how balanced it was, with no hysterical assertions about the Queen being a shapeshifting lizard, or Hitler living at the South Pole, or the Earth being flat (and no doubt resting on a giant turtle).   The FEMA one I found particularly interesting, as it ties in with some of the Emergency / Worst Case Scenario stuff I’ve encountered here in Britain.   There are panels of experts who have to meet to draw up plans as to what the government needs to do if such-and-such happens, and I can’t believe it’s any different in other countries.    My other-half has acted as a government adviser concerning what would happen if a giant CME hit the Earth and knocked out the National Grid, for instance.

With the 9/11 one I can’t help remembering seeing the footage of George W Bush reacting to the news.  Since then I’ve read arch-conspiracists have cited this as proof that He Knew.  I always saw it more as a sort of sad resignation, along the lines of “so it’s happened then”.

Anyway, if you violently disagree with any of Erik’s findings, don’t come and have a go at me.  I know how frighteningly emphatic some conspiracists/truthers can be, and I have no wish to get into a vicious argument about it.   All I will do is reiterate that I found it very interesting, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more videos along this line (and no, I am not a shill either).

*I can’t help feeling that some of the anti-Will Shakespeare stuff is down to class snobbery, pure and simple.   Some lofty academics cling hard to the idea that it was really Francis Bacon who was the real Shakespeare.  The best argument I’ve read against that one (and sadly I can’t remember who wrote it) was that Bacon was a right miserable old sod, with a stick up his backside, and for that reason he couldn’t have possibly written Shakespeare’s comedies!

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Mega blog post – Final Update May 2018

AKA I’ll Never Eat Lunch In Twitterland Again

In which I let off steam … at great length.

Social-Media has been much in the news of late, and usually for all the wrong reasons. Whether it be Donald Trump using Twitter to constantly try and start WW3, or Facebook acting like a creepy bunch of Scientologists coming to claim your soul, it seems to have developed an evil, sinister image. I am absolutely baffled as to how or why a lightweight thing like Social-Media has come to have such a towering importance in our lives. When I hear words on the News like “President Trump has tweeted” I feel like I’ve crossed through the looking-glass into some bizarre parallel universe. I mean, hang on a minute, I thought social-media was all about keeping connected with people you’re interested in, or posting pictures of cute animals or what you had for dinner, or tweeting along to the Eurovision Song Contest.

The only social-media I use is Twitter. I’ve been on it for 8 years now (well I was), and I absolutely hate the damn thing. But more of that in a moment. Curiously, I have never felt any strong inclination to join Facebook, in spite of various people over the years telling me to stop being silly and get on it. At the beginning of 2017 I did finally succumb and created a FB account. I deleted it again a short while later. I felt like a lost soul, wandering around the spooky basement of an old lunatic asylum, and hearing anguished screams in the distance. One day, when I was feeling bored, I started up an Instagram account. I immediately tried to delete it again, and was duly informed by Instagram that I wasn’t allowed to! Alright, I thought, it can sit there for all eternity, completely ignored.

I joined Twitter at the back end of 2010, having been told for months beforehand that, as a writer, I might find it useful. For months I resisted, sitting there like Grumio the slave in Plebs, looking spectacularly unimpressed, and saying “nah, I’m alright, thanks”. When I did finally get into it, I became a voracious tweeter. I would tweet about absolutely anything. I coined a phrase “there is always drama on Twitter”, and perhaps it fulfilled that side of me, that nosey parker side, who always loves a bit of gossip, and has an insatiable need to know what’s going on in the world. And yet, even back in the early days, there were plenty of times when I hated it.

“It’s a great way to connect with other writers”, you are told. Well yes it is, if you want them spamming their latest book down your throat morning, noon and night, or constantly reminding you of how EVERYONE thinks they are absolutely wonderful. When they’re not doing that they’re telling you how hard they’re working, which instantly makes you feel guilty, because you’re NOT working at that moment, you’re distracted by them on Twitter (although it does beg the question, if they’re so damn busy, how have they got time to constantly remind you they are?). After a while I felt like the publisher’s assistant in The Provincial Lady In America, who confessed to her that he really didn’t like writers. Now don’t get me wrong, Twitter CAN be very useful for writers. After all, it’s a free platform and a way to get your work noticed. But if you are a writer, just starting out, and you want to use it, do so by all means, but I strongly advise you to avoid other writers – you’ll only end up getting buried under book spam – and don’t rudely demand they read your story at 10 o’clock at night, as I had done to me once.

I want to say a word here about the Finger-Wagger Writers, these are the ones who dictate “advice” to other writers as if it’s hewn into tablets of stone. I nicknamed these “the EAs” – the Earnest Americans, because that is often what they are. I had one who asserted that blog pieces should be a certain number of words and NO MORE. I wouldn’t mind if she ever did any blogging herself, but as far as I know she hasn’t. And she seems to have been polishing the same magnum opus novel for the past 7 years. Another EA pompously tweeted “would you ever read a book written by someone without a creative writing degree?” Well if you don’t you’ll be missing out on most of the Classics, mate. If you listen to this lot, you’ll never get any writing done at all. Oh and as for the length of blog posts, THEY CAN BE ANY LENGTH YOU WANT THEM TO BE!! That is the beauty of blogging.

If you’re lacking in self-confidence as a writer, Twitter can be an absolute sod. Some writers are lucky, and are followed by hordes of adoring fans, who receive their every tweet with breathless adoration and cries “oh I love you so much, I really do!” Sadly, I am not one of that blessed tribe. Back in 2011, I tweeted a short story to Twitter for the first time. A strange woman reacted in a way that has baffled me ever since. Over the course of the next few hours her tweets became increasingly deranged, culminating in one which simply read “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL” over and over again for the entire 140 characters (as it was then). That particular story can be found in my B-Road Incident collection, if you want to read it for yourself, and erupt into hysterical tweets of “LOLOLOLOLOLOL” as well. I Blocked her in the end, because I seriously began to believe I had a mad-woman on my hands. To this day, I don’t know what I wrote which provoked her so much. Now, in the interests of balance, not everyone has been like that (thank God!). When I nervously tweeted my very first blog piece in June 2011 (about Borley Rectory) one follower sent me a message simply saying “that was an interesting piece, Sarah”. As a writer who suffers chronically from “stage-fright”, I appreciated his kind words, and still do. Over the years since I have occasionally received messages like this from readers, and I do value them muchly.

So, Twitter/social-media is like the rest of life, it has its ups and its downs, you meet kind people, you also meet absolute bellends. You experience the generous spirit of complete strangers, you also have complete strangers who will try and pick a fight over the most absurdly trivial subjects, and who won’t make a word of sense in the process. BUT, in the last couple of years, it has increasingly felt as though the negative is vastly outweighing the positive, for me anyway. It’s tempting to blame it all on Donald Trump and/or Brexit, and I’m sure they are major contributing factors. Something has gone dreadfully awry of late though. Perhaps it’s that we’re all taking it far too seriously, more than it was meant to be, I don’t know. I also don’t want to be one of those old-timers who tries to make out everyone was much nicer before social-media. No they weren’t. You still had bullies and bitches and narcissists and sociopaths and raving loonies, but it was easier to limit their power over you. Unless you were very unlucky, they weren’t very likely to come up to you in the street and shout “I overheard what you said out here 5 weeks ago last Friday at 3 PM, and I want you to know you’re a complete dickhead, and I’m going to set fire to your car with you in it!”

I feel deeply sorry for children these days, being constantly on the end of a phone or a computer. In the old days, if you got bullied at school, you would at least get a respite from it out of school hours, but no, not these days, the bully can get hold of you at any time, even when you’re sitting snugly in your room, minding your own business. And I do think (old fart alert!) people have got ruder as a whole. Very few people Online say “please” and “thank you”, too many people treat you – at best – as an automated service, like you’re an offshoot of Google. I’ve lost track now of the amount of times I’ve had complete strangers bustling in on me on Twitter and ordering me to follow them so I can DM them, as they have something important to say to me. The “something important” is usually a journalist who wants free information, and then buggers off again without so much as a “thanks ever so!” One got the name of my book wrong. I genuinely wondered if she’d got the right author, and asked her if it was my book she was referring to, as there was a book with that particular title on the market, written by someone else. I got a near-hysterical response along the lines of so-I-got-your-book-title-wrong-so what, and went on petulantly “I’m having to do A GREAT DEAL OF RESEARCH!!” Yes, writing is often like that, I’ve found.

Dr David Starkey (bear with me) once said that the British Monarchy could survive scandal and controversy, but it would never be able to survive apathy, that its biggest fear would be if we reacted to them with boredom. And that’s the problem I now have with Twitter/social-media. The utter tedium factor. Donald Trump stressing us out by threatening all and sundry with nuclear warheads is bad enough, but it’s the unrelenting day-to-day tedium of it all which is killing it for me. Possibly my biggest gripe about Twitter is what I call the Late Responder. This is the troll who obsessively combs through Twitter searches looking for anyone commenting on their chosen subject, and then viciously attacking them for it. I’ve had my lion’s share of this sort over the years, and I sometimes like to boast that my current record is 3-and-a-half years, that is, between me sending out a tweet, and someone having a go at me for it. I’ve seen others who have had more impressive scores than that though.

By far and away the worst example of a Late Responder I had was when I tweeted a BBC News story about the increase in stalking in recent years. Several days later (sigh) I had a complete nutjob come at me out of the blue, who proceeded to rant on at me over several tweets in a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness way. I felt like I had strolled in in the middle of a complete stranger having a heated argument with himself in a bus shelter. It culminated in him saying to me that he could arrange to have me “abducted and beheaded”. I duly reported this tweet to Twitter, who – what a great surprise – replied that they could do nothing. All I could do was Block him. Recently, whilst having a clear-out on Twitter, I had a look at my Blocked list, and found that not only is this raving nutter still around, but he has now spawned a second account, on which he makes even less sense than he did on the first one. Twitter, be ashamed.

Over the past few months it has felt as though that’s all I damn well get on Twitter these days. My last one was yesterday (14/4/2018). I had tweeted earlier in the week that I was concerned about Thomas Cook still advertising holidays in Turkey, given the current world situation. Now I might very well be wrong. I might very well have been over-reacting, but it was on the day that it was announced flights to that part of the world were going to be restricted. But it seems you’re not allowed to have very human, fleeting moments of anxious pondering on Twitter. A few days later my latest little aggressor decided to call me “pathetic” for voicing this concern, and – the final nail in it for me – he included the ubiquitous crying-with-laughter emoji. This might sound trivial (and it probably is), but after several days of extreme worry and sleeplessness about the imminent onset of nuclear war (I’m of the Threads / Protect & Survive generation, cut me some slack here), I really didn’t need this gobby little twat on top of everything else. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’ve tried to get round the Late Responder problem in recent months by doing regular tweet purges, of using TweetDelete to erase tweets after a certain time (I can recommend this app by the way), but even that’s not enough now. Life is moving so fast these days, that even tweets a few days old can seem prehistoric and irrelevant. I read the other day that a major concern amongst young people is the permanency of social-media, that tweets/messages hang around forever, ready to cause you maximum grief and embarrassment years later. This is a big problem for the generation that has grown up on the Internet – I’m very glad it wasn’t around when I was that age – but it’s this We Will Never Ever Let You Forget What You’ve Tweeted attitude which is killing it finally for me. To live in a world where you are NEVER allowed to forget even the most trivial of comments you’ve ever uttered is absolute sheer insanity. Like having the Recording Angel permanently on your tail. Orwell’s Thought Police would be orgasmic.

In many ways I hope social-media does survive. I do believe it can serve a useful function in society. It is an extremely useful way to keep in touch with people, and very useful for keeping up with the News. I’ve lost track now of how many times I’ve read of a big news story breaking on Twitter before I’ve seen it elsewhere. It can also be useful if you’re having travel problems. I’ve used it to find out about trains cancelled at Paddington, and roadworks on a motorway for instance. I also believe it could be used to help alleviate loneliness, particularly amongst elderly people, to give them a feel of community, even if it’s one in cyberspace. For instance, the comedian Sarah Millican does a fine job at Christmastime with her JoinIn hashtag, to encourage people who are alone over the festive season to chat on Twitter. Plus, in spite of what some may tell you, Online petitions can be very effective too.

But now I’ve reached the stage where I’ve all but scorch earthed my entire back catalogue of tweets, and pared my Following list right down to the bone, it’s probably time I called it a day. I am tired of its lack of warmth. Tired of the way you can know people on there for years, but you don’t know them really, not at all. And I’m sick and tired of the endless bots. The ones that come and plague you because you’ve used the word “coffee” in a tweet for instance, or the ones that immediately put you on a List because you’ve mentioned a film title. Worst of the lot are the probably-of-Russian-origin sexbots. There must be an endless conveyor belt of women with melon breasts somewhere on the outskirts of St Petersburg, all lining up wanting to be my “sex companion”. Thanks for the kind offer Vlad, but really I’m not interested.

I have heard people say “but you use YouTube, and that’s social-media!” Well yes, I suppose technically it might be, but there’s a difference. Unless you’re avidly posting Comments all day long, people don’t tend to constantly come and attack you for things you’ve said on YouTube*. You don’t have that whole annoying Followers/Friends nonsense, where you do this little pointless dance of social-media etiquette when someone follows you, sort of “oh you’ve followed me, so I suppose now I have to follow you back, even though we’ve probably got no interest in one another at all, and we will never ever communicate with each other ever again, in fact, you’ve probably got me on Mute already haven’t you?” Obviously all this is different for those talented souls who make YouTube videos, but they can get round the trolling nonsense by simply disabling their Comments section, or at least by strict moderating. But for a Lurker like me, it’s not an issue anyway. I can get my fill of the creative, newsy, and/or gossipy side of the Internet, without all the hassle of Followers/Friends/Trolls/Spambots etc etc. YouTube has its faults, but I enjoy it. There is always something new to see, and apart from the odd negative nutter, the people whose Comments I read are usually more enthusiastic and fun-loving as a whole**. Whereas Twitter these days all too often feels like a howling cesspit of negativity and time-wasting. When I looked at the Top Trends recently I was struck by how many negative words leaped out at me, everything was “I hate this” or “such-and-such has a had a negative reaction”. WHERE’S THE DAMN FUN GONE??? WAS IT EVER EVEN THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE??? It’s a horrid addiction, and frankly I found smoking easier to give up. **someone has clarified this for me, YouTube is a Video Streaming Service. The only social-media aspect to it is the Comments section, and you can solve that problem by simply not posting any comments. Glad we’ve got that one sorted.

I suppose I should apologise for the length of this blog piece (I’m starting to feel like I’m knitting a blanket here, it’s getting longer by the day), I was only going to say a few words, but obviously I had a lot to get off my chest, and it was time I did so. I’ve seen 2018 described as “the year of the neo-luddite”, as more and more people kick back against technology. Well I don’t think I am a neo-luddite to be honest, there’s a lot about the Internet I appreciate and enjoy, but social-media as it stands at the moment is something I can do without.

UPDATE 16/4/2018 – Today it was announced on the News that Wetherspoons, the UK pub chain, was closing all its social media accounts with immediate effect. Good for them. They cite all the recent bad publicity around social media, and the growing concerns over s-m addiction as their reasons for doing so. They said they also wanted to refute the current myth that all businesses need s-m to function … well quite, I mean it does somewhat beg the question as to how businesses managed to function for centuries before it was invented! The world didn’t begin when Mr T-Shirt Man Zuckerberg invented Facebook, contrary to what some will try and tell you.

I’ve long had a theory now that sites like Twitter can actually put you off a business or a person. There have been too many times lately when I’ve enjoyed a book or a video by someone, and gone to find out if they’re on Twitter … and come away completely repelled by what I’ve seen. (It’s a somewhat chastening thought to think people might have had the same thing with me!). Just one example, there is one political commentator I’ve seen a lot on Twitter, and always thought he was a complete idiot, a vacuous rent-a-gob, who tweets things just to provoke people and get a reaction. There’s a lot of it about. Then I watched one of his YouTube videos, and, although I still don’t agree with him on a lot of things, I can at least see that he’s more intelligent, calm and thoughtful when he’s communicating to camera, than he is when making bite-sized Twitter comments.

Sometimes YouTube can also help put someone in perspective. There was a guy I used to have as a Twitter follower who specialised in angry tweets. He ranted and raved about everything, enjoyed provoking women, or boasting about his business empire, or about the amount of followers he had (which made him a social-media colossus, in his eyes anyway), and sported a terrifying, Neanderthal, wild-eyed visage on his profile page, complete with raised fist. One day I looked up his YouTube channel and found a weedy little man in a grey jumper whingeing about the key to his car and why it didn’t work properly. (Tempted to do a Basil Fawlty at this point, and go “no IT works, YOU don’t”).

We used to have a saying on Twitter years ago: “Facebook makes you dislike people you know, Twitter makes you like complete strangers”. I don’t believe that’s true anymore. (We also used to say “don’t take it seriously, it’s only Twitter” – I haven’t read that one in YEARS). Anyway, the sun is shining – for a change – so au reservoir.

*HAPGOOD’S HANDY HINTS:

(1) If you do post on YouTube Comments, but you don’t want the Late Responder problem of people replying to you for years afterwards, simply click on the option of unsubscribing from YouTube Notifications. This will stop YouTube pestering you with messages – and clogging up your phone – every time someone replies to you. Either that, or you can simply go back and delete your original message. It’s up to you. The power is in your hands.

(2) If you’re new to Twitter, here’s my own guide to Tweeters You Might Want to Avoid Like The Plague, although you might come to the conclusion it’s simpler to have nothing to do with that rotten little blue bird of evil at all:

  • anyone who has a long row of numbers in their username. This is an outright troll. They are never good news, they will try and make your life a misery, and should be Blocked on sight. For heaven’s sake, don’t ever engage with them. They are poison. I’m not saying all people who have rows of numbers in their usernames are trolls, but a goodly proportion of them are.
  • the Inspirational/Motivational Quote mob. These are the tweeters who seem to do nothing but post pious little platitudes all day long. Twitter is awash with them. They are like psychic vampires, they will home in on you, and, unless you’re very ruthless with them, will bore on at you all day long forevermore, with an irritating quote for every occasion, usually from the Dalai Lama or Eleanor bloody Roosevelt, or – utterly bizarrely – Will Rogers. The constant use of Mr Rogers got so bad that I actually began to hate the poor man, and it’s scarcely his fault! At their worst I have found them to be insufferably pious and sanctimonious. Constant finger-waggers. I mean seriously people, who the flamin’ hell do you think you are??
  • The same really goes for the “happy day / happy day / every day’s a happy day” crowd. They are the ones who go on Twitter just to babble “Happy Monday / Happy Tuesday … ” you get my drift. What is wrong with that you may well ask? Well nothing in small doses, but some do it ALL THE TIME. Relentlessly. I had a follower who only ever did the “happy day / morning / afternoon / evening / spring / summer / autumn / winter” routine, usually accompanied by pictures of Snoopy. I didn’t dislike her as a person at all, but after several months of this, day-in day-out, I was starting to get the urge to smash up furniture.
  • People who have aggressive Twitter bio’s. By these I mean the ones who insist on putting their religious or political beliefs, or their dietary requirements in their bio description. American God-botherers are amongst the worst. They like to act as though they’ve got a personal hot-line to Jesus, and yet their timelines are usually full of hatred and bile (“your mother sucks cock in Hell!!” < oh thanks, very Christian that is, hashtag sarcasm). Frankly, I don’t think Jesus would be terribly impressed with them. The same rule applies for those who insist on plastering their Twitter page with little flags. It doesn’t matter what the flag is, these people are never nice easy-going companions to have around. They are always on the lookout for a fight, or for something to get offended by.
  • I must add something here about the ones who offer to pray for you. This might sound sweet, but it’s really bloody irritating!! I had one follower who offered to do that when we had to call out British Gas to clear a blocked pipe. She carried on like the Voice of Doom, “ooh he won’t be out to today [he was], I’ll pray for you”. Thanks. At least it gave British Gas a giggle when I told them.
  • The Get-Over-Yourself brigade. These are the ones who think because they’ve got some Followers on Twitter that they have achieved a Princess Di / Elvis level of celebrity. They put things in their bios like “RTs are not an endorsement”. Pompous bastards. Or aggressive things like “no-nonsense bitch”, “I kick ass”, or “if you don’t like my opinions fuck off” (charming). If they have any gongs – like an MBE or an OBE, a degree qualification, or a member of a society for instance – they will insist on inserting that into their username, just so’s you don’t have any chance of forgetting it in a hurry. They will probably flood your timeline with selfies. What fun. They will have no interest in you whatsoever, other than as a means to boost their pathetic Twitter followers count. Some will claim they are a “life guru”, a “social-media influencer” or a “motivational speaker”. God help us. I must also say a word here about the compulsive name-dropper. I used to see one guy on there who seemed to have known every celebrity within living memory. It got to the stage when every time a famous person died, and was trending on Twitter, I’d think “what’s the betting [said person] knew them and is now utterly devastated”. I can’t help being reminded of what I think was a Dorothy Parker anecdote. On hearing a loud crashing noise in a restaurant she said “that must be [whoever she was referring to] dropping another name”.
  • Anyone who has a miserable face in their avatar. Yes, really. I have found, as a general rule of thumb, that this nearly always means they really are a miserable bastard. It’s as simple as that. Some women adopt a sulky pout to try and make themselves look sexy* and mysterious, and then you find they are a moody bitch who disapproves of everything. The men who do this really are just grumpy bastards who hate everything. I once posted a quirky YouTube vid to Twitter, just as a bit of light relief one day. One such Grumpy Bastard came howling at me like an Old Testament God, yelling “And I tell YOU not to believe everything you see on YouTube!” He almost came complete with an accusing finger pointing out of the sky. *anyone who describes themselves as “sexy” in their bios or their username is always a narcissist desperately looking for attention.
  • TeamFollowBack. They’re still around, but thankfully nowhere near as ubiquitous as they used to be. These are there just to hoover up followers. You won’t get any quality content out of them, all you will see are endless lists of Twitter usernames scrolling past your eyes. The same goes for the FollowFriday crowd, but again, this doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as bad these days as it used to be.
  • The ones who go on Twitter just to post “bored”, “zzz”, “whatever” or “yawn”, as if they’re some bratty, over-indulged kid and you’re the hapless children’s entertainer at their birthday party. Block on sight, they’re depressing. No one needs that sort in their lives.
  • The snake-oil salesmen. Oh what a surprise, there are con-men at large on social-media. Well I’ll go to the foot of our stairs. They can vary greatly. From automated bot accounts who will pick up on a word you’ve innocently tweeted, and then try and flog you dodgy phones, to shiny-faced, grinning men in shirts and ties, who try and fool you they’re an invaluable Expert in something. One claimed to be an expert on doing business on Twitter. A particular nugget of wisdom was along the lines of “one way to get an advantage over your competition is to slag them off on social-media” (he didn’t use the exact words “slag them off” but it was along those lines). I hit the roof. THAT IS ILLEGAL!! Because I often write about the paranormal, I’ve seen some dodgy types along those lines too. There was the “clairvoyant” who claimed he was able to move objects by the power of thought alone. And we’re not talking tiny objects here, we’re talking cars, that sort of thing. If he can really prove he can do that it would change the entire course of history, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
  • The ones who try and tell you what you’re allowed to tweet (and I appreciate the irony of this, as I’m spending this entire list complaining about the tweets I hate). I had one woman who objected for months on end to anyone tweeting news stories, she clearly had never heard of the Unfollow button. It culminated in her actually ordering me to stop reading the news. I told her I would do what I wanted, at which she screamed at me “oh it’s your party and you’ll cry if you want to …” and on and on. When she wasn’t doing this she was preaching Peace and Love at everyone. Go figure.
  • I also have a problem with the “No Profanity” brigade. As you can probably see from this blog post, I don’t have a problem with swearing. I’m with George Orwell and Stephen Fry on this one. Swearing (unless it’s every other word, and then it just gets boring) is usually a sign of a rich vocabulary, and frankly there are more important things to get worked up about in this World than someone using a bit of fruity language. But no, we get the No Profanity lot on Twitter too. They put it in their bio’s, they lecture everyone about it. (They usually got tossed onto the Blocked On Sight pile as well). Interestingly, I read an article about how to spot narcissists on social-media, and it claimed they swear a lot. I’m afraid I disagree with that one. Some of the most egocentric people I’ve seen Online virtually never swore at all. If you want to spot a narcissist it’s very simple … count the amount of selfies they post on a daily basis. I must stress that there is a big difference between the selfie-taker and the general picture taker. I am genuinely interested in other people’s travel pictures, and there are some very talented amateur photographers out there, but I don’t want their big, grinning head constantly getting in the way of a lovely view for instance. The worst example I ever saw was a woman who was attending a solemn memorial, and insisted on doing it as a selfie. All I could see was her big face, which frankly I could already see in every other picture she had ever posted.
  • Ones who only post links to their Facebook page. These are the ones who have “fb” included in every tweet. What a bloomin’ cheek! It’s as if Twitter is Facebook’s poor relation, and they are begrudgingly chucking you the crumbs from the Facebook table. Arrogant tosspots. The same applies to the Instagram crowd.
  • Which leads me to … the ones who seem to think Twitter IS Facebook. By that, I mean the ones who think their life is an endlessly fascinating soap opera, and you – their hapless follower – is completely enthralled by it. Either that or you’re strapped in a straitjacket to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, with their tweets rolling past you on the big screen. They do random tweets where you feel like you’ve come into the middle of someone else’s argument, and you have no idea (or much less care) what they’re on about. In my early days on Twitter I had a follower who went on mega-rants about her housemate. I had no idea what she was on about, and I felt like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, sort of “am I supposed to say something about this? But I don’t know what she’s on about!” She once posted a bog-standard selfie with the heading “this is me, right now”. Gee thanks, been waiting all evening for that. They are the ones who try to suck the entire rest of the world into their lives. They go Online every day to post about their interminable problems. “I’m not feeling very well today”, “I feel cold because I forgot my hat”, “my train’s late”, “I don’t know what to have for dinner”, “I need a holiday”, “my son can’t visit me at Christmas”, etc etc. Look honey, I don’t know you, it is unlikely in the extreme that we’ll ever meet, I don’t even know your real name, and I already get depressed enough about the state of the world without taking on your problems as well!! Try keeping a diary or something.
  • Parody accounts. They can be mildly amusing to start with, but they often quickly out-stay their welcome. Usually they have a limited number of jokes which get recycled endlessly. For example, for a while I followed a parody account of HM The Queen. I soon became fed up with the way “awkward” was constantly used as the punchline. Many, probably for that reason, don’t last very long. The account-holder soon gets bored with it. And where Donald Trump’s concerned, no amount of parody accounts can possibly match the real thing. The most tedious ones of the lot are the ones who hide behind old sitcom characters in order to vent their extreme political beliefs in blissful anonymity. The innocent twitterer may follow them fondly believing it’s a funny, nostalgia account. It isn’t. Some are just old bores who refuse to believe that anything good has happened anywhere since 1975. They get wearying very quickly. No, they’re not in character, pretending to be Albert Steptoe, Archie Bunker or Alf Garnett, they just haven’t got the balls to tweet as themselves.
  • You also get the polemicists who hide behind anonymous identities. One case in point is self-proclaimed “libertarian legend” Holbornlolz. A couple of years ago he was branded as “Britain’s vilest troll”, although frankly I’ve encountered worse than him myself*. He goes to great lengths to protect his real identity. When you see his real fizzog you can understand why he chooses to stay anonymous, or why he prefers to wear the ubiquitous V For Vendetta mask on his blog (which hasn’t been updated since 2015, perhaps he’s too busy tweeting). I would have a lot more respect for the likes of him if they had the nerve to say what they’ve got to say under their real names. Anyone can be brave when they’re hiding behind a computer screen and using a fake name. *the worst troll I’ve had – apart from the guy who threatened to behead me – was one who included the word “rapist” in his bio. Charming. Twitter is the very pits sometimes.
  • Fake accounts. Apart from the aforementioned pornbots, who tend to be pretty easy to spot, not all fake accounts are. Some can be quite convincing. There was a gobby little brat, with a beard, called Godfrey Elfwick. Turns out – from what I vaguely remember – he was unmasked as a fictional character made up by two bored, twatty Millennials, simply in order to wind everybody up. Life is too short for this rubbish.
  • Cliques. These aren’t easy to spot at first, I grant you that. Sometimes it’s only when you’ve been accepted into the fold that you realise that, far from simply following someone vaguely interesting on Twitter & they’ve graciously followed you back, you have actually strayed into a Rev Jim Jones-style cult. In my innocence, when I first joined Twitter, I thought it was great to finally find an Internet site that hadn’t been hijacked by a clique. I’ve seen too many Internet chat-rooms taken over this way in the past, by the same old farts who have nothing better to do all day than snicker away with their little Online friends, and glaring in horror at any newbie who dares to utter a word. Oh how wrong I was. In my time I’ve strayed into New Age groups (where you will overdose on Inspirational quotes, pictures of lit candles and Compulsory Positive Thoughts, I promise you), TV/film nostalgia groups, baking fiends, Earnest Writers R Us groups. One of the latter had an American woman in charge, whose adoring followers seemed to spend all day telling her how wonderful she was. I baled out when they started talking about having special t-shirts made for us all. I have no idea how serious that suggestion was, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
  • The needy ones. These are the ones who are too self-absorbed for any sane person to waste a moment of their precious time on. You will usually know them straight off, because the instant you follow them back they will send you an automated DM (Direct Message) directing you to their book / their video / their Facebook page / their website, and urge you to come and give it a Like. If you’re still misguided enough to stay around them after that, they’ll probably badger you with demands. “Just touching base with you, have you read my book yet?” or the wheedling “can I have an RT?” Some of them are even worse than that, and will simply put the abrupt command “RT” at the end of a tweet, as if they’re an Oriental despot demanding you wash their feet. It will make you glad you’re not a celebrity (unless you are of course), as they get this rubbish all the time. “Hey [insert name of famous person] it’s my birthday, can I have an RT?” “My cat’s sick, can I have an RT?” FFS. Probably the SADDEST, MOST PATHETIC tweet I ever received was from a writer, who sent me a DM saying “Sarah, can you RT the tweet I did earlier where I mentioned how funny John Cleese and Terry Wogan found my book”. I don’t even know where to begin with how pathetic it was, although citing John Cleese and Terry Wogan must mark it for some kind of Hall Of Fame Most Pathetic Tweet Ever award. From that moment onwards I never had any inclination to read any more of his books. Well done, mate, you scored a brilliant own goal there. There was also the fledgling writer who sent me a DM saying “If you look at my Facebook page, I’ll look at yours. Like for Like?” No, not likey for likey. And good luck with looking for my Facebook page. I once had someone tweet me after 11 o’clock one night, asking if I had any further information about strange occurrences at Loch Ness. I sent him my Loch Ness Timeline piece, which lists all strange phenomena there for the past 100 years. A few minutes later I got another tweet “yes, very interesting, but you haven’t included a full list of references”. I could only reply “goodnight” to him after that. I won’t miss all that.
  • I was going to add something about the chronic RT-ers, they’re the ones who RT absolutely everything, even someone wishing them a “good morning”, and they end up flooding your timeline with the most self-indulgent rubbish as a result. Things that only possibly be of interest to them. But there is actually a very easy way round that one, just turn off the RTs from them. Go to their profile page, pull down the little wheel near their username, and you should get a “turn off retweets” option. It is very handy. I have actually known some followers to virtually disappear once I’d done that. Because they only ever RTd things, I never saw them again! RESULT!!
  • The ones who do nothing but automated tweets. I read an article recently about someone, who was using Twitter to promote his business, complaining he had very little impact on his followers. The reason wasn’t hard to find. He automated all his tweets. Good God mate, no one takes any notice of them! They are a joke! They can end up horribly out-of-synch, such as the ones wishing you Happy Christmas at the end of March, or urging you go out and vote the day AFTER an election (I’ve seen both). It got so bad with one woman that I was starting to be able to predict when her tweets were going to appear, and what they were going to say. It really was time to get shot of her then. Not only does it make you look arrogant and cold, but it also shows a distinct lack of imagination. One follower used to do automated excerpts from his book. Not only did I see the same clips coming round and round again, but they often were so horrible they made me feel sick. You don’t want that when you’re eating your lunch.
  • Any grown adult who uses a picture of themselves as a small child as their avatar.  I’ve never understood that one, it’s just plain weird.
  • A word to anyone who uses the word “haters” a lot.  Just because someone disagrees with you about something, it doesn’t automatically make them a “hater”.  OK?  Pathetic.
  • And finally – absolutely anyone who posts “lmao” to everything. They haven’t an original thought in their head, have the mindset of a boorish 12-year-old, and try and pull everything down to their level. They are tiresome. It seems to be getting replaced these days by the crying-with-laughter emoji, which is every bit as pointless and irritating. It became a pet hate of mine.

(3) One of the most telling insights I’ve come across about Twitter was from a young girl on YouTube, who was talking about how she gave up social-media for 6 months, and what she learnt from it. She said it was very noticeable that nothing ever changes on it. That you can depart it for a significant period of time, and yet when you come back it’s as if nothing’s happened. You would think that might be reassuring in some way, particularly in these turbulent times, but it’s not. It’s the same old tosh still whirling round. Like going back to a workplace you left some time before, and finding the same old rubbish still there, reminding you why you left in the first place. Recently I saw someone announce she was going on a mass-unfollow, simply because she wanted a change of scene.  Last year (2017) I too went on a Twitter purge, unfollowing about 900 accounts.  I fully expected my Followers count to take a sharp nosedive afterwards … IT BARELY CHANGED AT ALL!!  Likewise, in April 2018, when I tweeted this blog post as my final tweet, I again expected my Followers count to take a sharp nosedive.  It stayed almost completely static.   It only confirmed to me what a load of old hooey Twitter Followers counts are.   If you’re desperate to be rid of someone, but you feel a permanent Block is too harsh, then do a soft-block instead.  A soft-block is when you block someone and then immediately unblock them again.  It removes them from your Followers list.  Some argue that you might as well just Mute them, but I’ve never found that terribly effective.   I Muted one guy who drove me mad with his constant moaning.  He did disappear from my main timeline, BUT he was still showing up in my Mentions when he sent me tweets (never has the old expression “misery loves company” been more true).  In the end, Blocking was the only answer.

(4) BE VERY WARY ABOUT WHAT YOU REVEAL. In the early years of social-media I really don’t think many of us gave much of a thought as to what we posted. It was usually a spur-of-the-moment thing, and as disposable as a hastily-scribbled note. We would share anything. We humans are a sociable bunch. All that has changed. Towards the end of my time on Twitter I was becoming increasingly cagey about what I posted. I’m not talking big stuff here (bank account details), but little things, such as “I’m sitting in the garden”. Not because I thought anybody was stalking me – although that is a very real risk for anybody Online, and shouldn’t be underestimated – but because I simply didn’t want to run the risk of some crashing bore finding something to lecture me, or get offended about, and thus shattering the spell of the moment. Think I’m being paranoid? Take this recent example, what I call IceCreamGate. A vegan lady recently posted an innocuous tweet saying how she’d bought a little girl an ice-cream to cheer her up. All very sweet and harmless, you might think … NOT IN TWITTERLAND. A fellow vegan homed in and proceeded to rant and rave at her about the horror of a vegan buying ice-cream. It briefly became a social-media sensation. I read about it in the Guardian newspaper. I thought “love, just carry on buying ice-cream, but don’t tell social-media, For God’s Sake Don’t Tell Social-Media”.  These days I get a naughty kick of out NOT telling social-media things. I once posted a tweet about having a spot of lunch in the back garden, whilst listening to music on my headphones. It was a fine moment. I had a bitter follower coming back at me raving “YOU LIVE LIKE A QUEEN!!” (knighting people? opening parliament? going to the races?). I sometimes still think of him … when I’m sitting in the garden. When I had my very first mammogram I posted a public tweet thanking the radiographer, simply because I had been very nervous about it beforehand. I am a complete wuss when it comes to anything medical. A complete stranger burst in on me demanding to know if the radiographer had told me her name, as it would have been very unprofessional if she hadn’t, blah-blah-blah etc etc etc blah-blah-blah (I can’t say her name was uppermost in my mind at the time). It was horrible. This man – whose surname was appropriately Bore – had wrecked it. Social-media can go fuck itself. ADDENDUM 7/5/2018: I read an article in the Telegraph about why young people, the ones currently in their mid-twenties, are being so abstemious about sex these days. One of the reasons cited was our old friend social-media. For instance, men who are concerned they may not give an absolutely perfect performance, are worried it may then get plastered all over Facebook.  Where sex and relationships are concerned, you now run the risk of every embarrassing little mishap being broadcast to the entire Internet world, sometimes with added illustrations to boot. In the old days the worst you had to fear was somebody having a snicker with their pals behind your back. I can’t imagine what it must be like to worry now that someone might plaster nude pics of you all over cyberspace! I can see why people are more wary.

I’ve just discovered this quote on Quora, by Kahlil Gibran: “travel and tell no one, live a true love story and tell no one, live happily and tell no one, people ruin beautiful things”.  Yep, sums it up perfectly.

(5) This one should be obvious, but it’s absolutely amazing how many can’t seem to grasp it.  When you include the @ next to somebody’s username, then your tweet will automatically show up in their Notifications.  I once had a bunch of students discussing one of my blog pieces this way, seemingly oblivious – or more likely not caring – that each comment was appearing in my Mentions page.  HOW BLOODY RUDE!!  (The annoying little prick who started it had something like “social-media influencer” in his bio.  “Social-Media Dickhead” more like).  It’s like having some arrogant little tosspot perching on your desk, and deciding to tell the rest of the office what they think of your work, as if you’re not there.  Likewise, it is also extremely rude to tag people into your private convo’s/arguments.  Their Mentions will then get stuffed up with your dreary debates, whether they like it or not, and if they ask you to untag them then it’s only good manners to do so.   Don’t be so damn arrogant.  Would you do that to someone in real life?  (Don’t answer that, you probably would).

(6) How To Get Followers.  People will tell you a lot of old rubbish about how hard it is to get Followers on Twitter.  It’s not, it’s bloody easy.  If you’re really desperate, just follow as many accounts as possible.  I had one Follower who bragged about being “a complete Follower whore”, in that she spent her evenings following as many Twitter accounts as possible (well if you’ve got nothing better to do …).  She didn’t stay as one of my followers for long, once I read that comment.  That sort are only interested in the numbers game.   And you will always have the spivs and double-glazing salesmen to boost your number.  For example, I once followed Nigel Slater, and in return got followed by kitchen designers desperate for customers!   I tweeted the word “solar” in relation to a news article about solar flares once, and got solar panels salesmen.  Tweeting the words “golf”, “mortgages/insurance” and “plumbers” is also a good bet for some reason, although to be honest, I don’t think a 24-hour friendly plumber based in Los Angeles would be much use to me here in Blighty.  If really desperate you can simply tweet the word “followers” or put that word in your bio, and you will be snowed under by the Team FollowBack and Buy Your Twitter Followers Here bots.   Another way is to tweet along to popular TV shows, such as The X-Factor or Great British Bake-Off.  As you wade through the inevitable trolls, you may also pick up the odd new follower along the way.  Unfortunately, you may well find that that TV show is absolutely all you’ve got in common, and you have no other interest in each other at all, but that won’t stop you from following each other for years on end, until you’ve both completely forgotten why on earth you followed each other in the first place.  You are never short of company on Twitter … it’s just rarely the meaningful connections you were probably after.

(7) Respect other people’s space In Real Life.  One bloody rude and intrusive trend which has arisen with the growth of social-media is the habit some people have of taking pictures of, or filming, complete strangers on their phones, and then posting it on their Facebook/Twitter page, either for “a laugh”, or to try and shame said person in some way.  I once had a girl who kept trying to film me on her phone when I was sitting, chatting innocently to my husband, in a pub one day.  She only stopped when I stuck my tongue out at her*.   I once complained on Twitter about a rude guy on a nearby table, who was being a complete sod to the waitress.  A Follower urged me to take his picture and shame him all over Twatterland.   No I didn’t.  I confined myself to being sympathetic to the poor waitress instead, and giving said bastard filthy looks.  He soon got the message and left.  What happens In Real Life should stay In Real Life.   *A A Gill once wrote that he hated the way TV programme makers would leave a pause at the end when they’ve been interviewing you, as if hoping you’ll say or do something embarrassing for their delectation, either that or just simper in a gormless fashion, making yourself look a sad wally.   He would kibosh this by yelling “fuck!” at the top of his voice, causing them to hurriedly stop filming.  Me sticking my tongue out at the rude girl was my way of doing this.

—-

You might legitimately feel I’ve been too harsh on Twitter in this piece, and I can understand that. I am genuinely trying to rack my brains to think of a time when I absolutely, whole-heartedly ENJOYED Twitter. (1) a live tweetalong to a 1970s nostalgia show one evening, that was wonderful, and the jokesters were on top form (2) Halloween 2011, when everyone got in the mood and posted spooky or just alternative culture stuff. (3) oh and the day gay marriage was legalised. For a brief few minutes, amongst British tweeters anyway, there was a genuine feel of joy and bonhomie. Other than that, um …

It has to be said though that Twitter got unfairly maligned during the August Riots of 2011, when politicians and media tried to blame social-media for the mess, but it did actually do a lot of good during those highly fraught few days. The Clean-Up operation was organised entirely over Twitter, when people armed themselves with brooms and went to clean up the streets. I was one of the many tweeting during the Riots, and I remember some vulnerable people were warned from straying into dangerous areas whilst it was all unfolding, thanks to social-media. One man who was frightened and trapped in his flat with his wife and baby during it, was kept going by some lovely people sending him messages of support. None of that got reported by the powers-that-be.

Anyway, I’m largely done with it now. I feel I have well and truly done my Twitter tour-of-duty. The only reasons I’m not deleting the account (at the moment) are because I don’t want Russian bots getting their greasy mitts on the username. Although the way things are going I suspect I may well change my mind on that one at some point.

PS: I wrote this blog post mainly because I had 8 years of Twitter-inspired grievances to get out of my system. Trouble is, once I got started on it I found I had great trouble stopping.  I want to apologise to any innocent tweeters I may have been sharp and hasty with over the years, but there were just too many times when Twitter got right up my nose!

PPS: check out a short vid called ‘5 Reasons Why I Hate Twitter’ by a YouTuber called Croc Gang Ent, it’s very funny.

If you haven’t already seen it, have a look at the Black Mirror episode Nosedive.  If you still want to live in a social-media world after that, frankly you’ll deserve it.

FINAL UPDATE (I HOPE) 17/5/2018 – I was always planning to do a final update when I was 30 days on from my last Twitter post, but in all honesty, I cannot think of anything terribly profound to say.   I feel I got a lot out of my system with this lengthy blog post.  Stuff that had fermented for too long.   It was never my intention to be unduly harsh on anyone (apart from the worst of the trolls, as far as I’m concerned it’s open season on them), but once the dam burst it all came flooding out y’see.

Only this morning though I read an article by Dan Nosowitz (I Don’t Know How To Waste Time On The Internet Anymore) who said he missed the early years of the Internet, the years of LiveJournals and people blogging their passions and interests.  He says that in recent years – he cites 2013 as the turning-point* – Facebook and Twitter have taken over too much.   People have been predicting the death of blogging for years, but I refuse to believe it’s had its day.  Blogging gives you a far more effective free platform than social-media ever will.   It is YOUR space, your little realm.   Last year (2017) I didn’t blog for months on end, but once I blew the dust of it, I decided I wanted to get back into it.   And although I never did a LiveJournal, I do think they’re a great idea.  Back in the Noughties I used to read author Poppy Z Brite’s LiveJournal every day, and found it fascinating.  Sadly he doesn’t seem to do it anymore, and has retreated a lot from the Internet public scene, which I can completely understand.   *I think 2013 was the turning-point.  So many previously keen tweeters seemed to suddenly stop and vanish from the scene around them.  They were very wise.

At the end of his article Nosowitz writes that the Internet is not a place of fun and escapism anymore, that it is a “utility world”, that “it is efficient and all-encompassing.  It is not very much fun”.    I think you have to find the bits of it that still are fun and that speak to you personally.  I know I bang on about YouTube, but it has been a godsend for me this past year.  I discovered ASMR and ambient noise videos through it, which have helped me enormously.  For convenience, I have now collected them all onto one list (ASMR / Ambient Noise/ Background Music) on my YouTube page*, and from the Comments I’ve read on them I know they help a lot of other people too.

There are a lot of articles around on Google about What You Discover When You Stop Doing Twitter, and they all tend to be fairly accurate.  The most obvious thing you find is that you suddenly have a lot more time at your disposal, as if some benevolent god has granted you several more hours in the day.   You can also enjoy the moment, without feeling the need to share it with a bunch of fractious strangers or spambots preying on you.  I did notice sometimes that I almost automatically went to reach for my phone, as if “oh it’s a couple of hours since I last checked in, I’d better do it”.  I was reminded of the sequel to The Stepford Wives, where the women had to take a pill every few hours, to keep themselves in robotic mode.   I was recently sitting outside our local bakery, and watched a family walking along the pavement.  All of them, mum, dad, kids, had a phone in their hands, which they were busily gawping at, not saying a word to each other.   The robot family.

And yes, it’s true what they say, you do become much happier.  I’m not saying Life suddenly becomes all sunshine and flowers, but it does get more mellow.   You don’t spend all day thinking a complete stranger in cyberspace is about to come and tear you to pieces for something you tweeted back in 2014, or one of your dear “followers” is about to launch into a vicious rant about something you really don’t need to know about.  The current Royal Wedding here in Blighty has also made me greatly appreciate the absence of Twitter in my life.  Royal events are nauseating on Twatter at the best of times.  I still have bad memories of being on Twitter for the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee.  I’m not overstating it when I say it was appalling, and I hope to never to experience mass hostility on that level again.  There is nothing worse than being branded a “hater” (a horrible word) just because you don’t share their unbridled enthusiasm.  So I really don’t miss the ardent royalists yelling “haters” at the rest of us, or “STFU and sit down”, or orders to leave the country (um … it’s my country too).  Of course, you still get the ardent Royalists shouting all over the place In Real Life, but somehow it’s usually easier to handle.

The Royal Wedding is just one instance of a number of occasions I’ve had in recent weeks where I’ve had occasion to think “thank God I’m not on Twitter anymore”.    It’s like cutting yourself loose from the Borg Hive Mind.   I read an article recently in which another Twitter refugee said he had found himself wondering what other Twitter users thought about something before making up his own mind.  It gets you like that.  Now I feel liberated.  I can have my own thoughts.   I can even keep them to myself if I feel like it.   I don’t have to justify my opinions to the Grim Collective.

And it’s not just about opinions.  One thing that really used to irritate me on Twitter was this assumption that EVERYBODY in the known Universe works 9-5 Mondays-to-Fridays, so on Friday afternoons you would get a mass outpouring of “Happy Friday!  Squee!  It’s Friday everybody!  Clappity-clappy.  Happy skippy dance” (yeah eat Crunchie).   They would then spend the next 48 hours moaning about the weather / the TV / the kids / going to the shops etc, before an enforced pall of gloom would descend once again on the following Monday.   On the day after a Bank Holiday or the Christmas hols we would get bossy Twitter trends like “hashtag BackToWork”, which came as news to those of us who had been working all along.   I remembering seeing a female follower doing a ridiculously over-the-top “it’s Monday people, but it’ll soon be the weekend, we can do this, we can get through it”.  I knew for a fact that she was a self-employed writer who worked from home, so what buggering jaysus difference did it make to her that it was Monday morning??  I ask you, really!   Talk about being brainwashed into the Collective.   I once saw a man audaciously tweet “actually I quite like Mondays”.  I have images of him being bundled into a back room somewhere, bound and gagged, until he stopped having such daring avant-garde views.  Twitter can often feel like a cyber form of Communism in that respect.   The drone workers, all clocking in and out at exactly the same time.   And God forbid anyone should be so delightfully random as to publicly confess that they actually enjoy their work!  I suppose the point I’m trying to make with this particular grumble is how much Twitter can make you feel like you’re being herded into the Collective, and a pretty dismal Collective it is too.   One where you are a boring cog in the wheel, groaning on about your grey life, unable to think for yourself, and only capable of a modicum of pleasure when you’re inflicting braggy selfies on your bored and irritated audience.

Recently I had a browse round Twitter – before I finally pulled the lever for the last time – to see what was going on, what kind of threads people were posting, mainly to see what I could write (if anything) for this blog update.   I found (1) an earnest spat about Mother’s Day in America (2) some high-handed little so-and-so decreeing that no one sorts laundry anymore (doncha just love it when someone half your age lays down the law), and (3) a trend asking “is calling old white men ‘gammon-face’ racist?” (dunno, don’t care).   Oh boy, what a lark!  So Dan Nosowitz was absolutely right about the lack of fun these days, but I would argue that that’s Facebook and Twitter for you.  It seems to have become a mosh-pit of humourless tight-mouthed prigs, all with a bee in their bonnet about something.  What I now call the POAS lot, Permanently Outraged About Something.  And if it’s not them it’s the tedious Telling It As It Is brigade (telling it as they see it, might be more accurate), who spend all day inflicting their boorish opinions on us, and making the brazen assumption they know what the rest of us are really thinking (bloody cheek!).  I can only assume the reason they’re on Twitter so much is because In Real Life people must run across the road, dart behind trees, out of the back doors of pubs, or hurl themselves into the frozen veg section of the supermarket when they see them approaching.   BUT not all the Internet is like that, thank God.   Some of us manage to escape from it, into the wacky world of The Rest Of The Internet … and we’re not going back.

*I have now compiled 3 ASMR/Ambient Noise playlists.  One which has all of them on.  Another which is dedicated to Food/Eating/Mukbang ASMR, and the third is what I call my Creative Writing ASMR.  These are very atmospheric ambient noise videos (each usually about an hour in length) which I have found particularly beneficial for getting the creative juices flowing, and shutting out unwelcome Noises Off.

This is a subject that has interested me for a long while, but it seems peculiarly apt during these hideously dark times we’re living through at the moment.  By “daytime darkness” though I mean it in a literal sense, a profound darkness which falls during daylight hours.  Sometimes of course these can have an obvious explanation, such as the weather.  During the awful floods of the Summer of 2007 for instance, it got so dark in our neighbourhood that the streetlights came on at 10 o’clock in the morning (this was in July!), and I had never seen the sky such a strange colour before.

In 1816 occurred the notorious Year Without A Summer, when a volcanic eruption in the Dutch East Indies the year before threw so much sulphur into the atmosphere that world temperatures plummeted, resulting in widespread global famine.  It also inspired one of the greatest creative brainstorming sessions in history, when a house-party on the banks of the Lake Geneva were forced to stay indoors and entertain each other with fantastical stories.  Out of it Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein, Polidori began the whole vampire craze with The Vampyre, and Lord Byron was inspired to write his poem Darkness.  This was the era of The Age Of Reason, and yet here it clashed with portents of doom which were  being proclaimed all over Europe, inducing hysteria and suicide amongst many people.   A scientist in Italy proclaimed that the Sun would go out on 18 July, which didn’t help matters at all, leaving many to fear that the Day of Judgement was nigh.  North America was afflicted with severe frosts and snowfall in the month of June, seriously harming crops.  During the month of May, the temperatures didn’t get above freezing in the New York area.  One woman summed it up succinctly in her diary: “weather backward”.

A few decades earlier occurred New England’s Dark Day, when on 19 May 1780 a strange darkness occurred over the skies of New England and parts of Canada.  The darkness was observed soon after sunrise, and occurred into the following night.  There has been much discussion since as to what had caused it, the most likely suspect being a combination of forest fires, fog and dark cloud.   It was dark enough for candles to be required during daytime, and for frogs to start croaking as if it was night-time.

A less explainable event was supposed to have happened in Wimbledon, London, in April 1904, when an inexplicable daytime darkness hit the neighbourhood.  The only source I have ever been able to find for this story occurred in Charles Fort’s The Book Of The Damned.  He writes that on 17 April 1904 “it came from a smokeless region: no rain, no thunder; lasted 10 minutes; too dark to go even out in the open”.  I have seen some people trying to tie this event in with the Tunguska event, but Tunguska occurred 4 years later, on 30 June 1908.  What is rare is for a darkness to happen in such a small, localised area.

Ruby Side Thompson was a housewife in Essex during World War 2.  During this time she kept a diary which documented the hardships of life on the Home Front.  Sadly, these diaries seem to have been pulled from publication, which is a shame because they are an invaluable record of domestic life in extremely trying conditions.  Now I hope I don’t infringe any copyright issues here, but I’d like to include an excerpt from the diary.  On 10 June 1940, in the immediate aftermath of Dunkirk, when the Nazi’s were advancing relentlessly across Europe, closing in on Paris in particular, and things were looking very bleak indeed, Ruby and her husband went to church (her husband was a practising Catholic):

It was a dull morning yesterday, when we left the house at 7 AM, but when we came out of church at 8 AM an awful blackness filled the sky.  It looked as though a frightful storm was imminent.  Nothing happened: no rain, no wind, no thunder or lightning, only a spreading blackness, and an awful oppressiveness of the atmosphere.  This state continued all day.  It was dark like a black winter’s day, and we had to switch the lights on to work by.  It was an uncanny day”

This made such an impression on Ruby that she was still referring to it several months later.  I can’t help being reminded of a strange day we had in Avebury many years ago in the 1990s, when a heavy, forbidding atmosphere blanketed the village, and which ended sharply when we left the village boundaries.  I have covered this in my Avebury blog piece, but Ruby’s description of “an awful oppressiveness of the atmosphere” sums it up pretty well.

In January 2018 the Guardian reported that mainland Europe was suffering from an acute lack of sunlight, prompting one French newspaper to issue the forbidding headline “IL EST MORT LE SOLEIL?”  A spokesman for Moscow State University’s meteorological unit branded it “the darkest month in the history of our weather observations”.  I can only hope it wasn’t a forewarning of what might be to come.

 

It occurred to me that many of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the years have all been set in the Spring/early Summer.  I don’t know why this is, I would’ve thought Autumn would be more my time, but that’s how it goes.  So as it’s now Spring-time (allegedly) I thought I’d mention a few of the books I’ve liked which always remind me of this season.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

The “excellent women” of the title refers to those reliable spinsters (to use an old-fashioned word) who were often the backbones of their small communities, volunteering for thankless menial work, but for whatever reason – usually a shortage of men – they never seemed to be fortunate in the love department.  Mildred Lathbury is one such woman, living by herself in a small London apartment in the 1950s, and helping out at her local church.   I loved Mildred, and her small, unassuming lifestyle.  She is a great character, often quietly fuming inside at the worthy image she has (so now I’m the kind of woman who always hangs up her tea-towel am I!).  Over the course of a few months we follow Mildred as she gets caught up in the relationships all around her, particularly with her neighbours.

The Face Of Trespass by Ruth Rendell

My favourite RR novel, it concerns a washed-up writer, living in a tumbledown cottage in the Essex countryside, and trying to survive on the few meagre royalties his book still earns.  He is obsessed by the memory of a temperamental lover.  This is not one of RR’s Inspector Wexford novels, which suits me just fine, as I’m not a fan of the police procedural genre, and I was fascinated by the lonely life of the central character.  I feel RR was at her very best when writing about lonely people living on the edge of mainstream society.  The book opens at the beginning of May, which  was the time of year when I first read it.

Hangover Square, & Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse by Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton is probably most famous these days for writing the play Gaslight, on which two famous thrillers of the 1940s were based (one starring Ingrid Bergman), and giving rise to to the expression “gaslighting”, to show psychological abuse in a relationship.   But he was also responsible for Hangover Square, which for me is one of the finest British thrillers I’ve ever read, and The Gorse Trilogy, about a psychopathic conman, Ralph Gorse (brilliantly filmed as The Charmer in the 1980s, starring Nigel Havers).   Both books begin in the month of January and span the following few months.  In Hangover Square, the central character, a troubled young man called George Harvey Bone, is returning to London after the Christmas holidays, and resuming his wasted existence, moving from grim bedsits in Earl’s Court to seedy London pubs.   He is obsessed with a woman called Netta, who is downright sociopathic and not worth anybody’s time.  The book details their wretched relationship over the next few months, culminating in tragedy at the end of Summer, just as War is about to break out.  In Mr Stimpson & Mr Gorse, the middle book in the Gorse Trilogy, Gorse has found his way to Reading (of all places), where he proceeds to prey upon the insufferably silly Mrs Plumleigh-Bruce, in order to divest her of all her savings.   It is said that Hamilton based Gorse on the notorious sexual sadist and murderer Neville Heath, who preyed upon vulnerable women in the chaos of immediate post-war Britain, and who was hanged in 1946.  Ralph Gorse remains a horribly convincing portrait of an amoral psychopath devoid of all feeling.

The Haunting Of Toby Jugg, & The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley

I’ve blogged about Toby Jugg on another page, but for me this is Wheatley on top form, and listening to a recent audio book of it confirmed just how scary it is in parts.  The novel is told in journal format, and covers a few weeks in the life of one Toby Jugg, a young airman crippled during active service in WW2.  Toby has been sent to a remote castle in Wales to convalesce, and fears that his carers are trying to deliberately drive him insane so that they can get their hands on his inheritance (his 21st birthday is only a few weeks away).   The book covers most of May and June, culminating in grim Satanic rites on Midsummer’s Eve.   Wheatley can be a trifle long-winded, and with a tendency to rant at times, which may be off-putting for some readers used to a brisker, more taut style of story-telling, but some of the scenes are amongst the scariest I’ve ever come across in a horror novel, and those damn spiders … ugh!  I’ve heard there is a filmed version of this around (The Haunted Airman), but I don’t think I could watch it for that reason.   Wheatley’s most famous novel, The Devil Rides Out, is also set in the Spring, culminating as it does on May Eve, Walpurgis Night, the 30th April, and said to be one of the Satanic highlights of the year.   Once you’ve read this, or seen the famous Hammer film version, the end of April will never be the same again.

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

This much-loved book is also told in journal format.  It is the story of a 17-year-old girl, Cassandra Mortmain, who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling Suffolk castle in the 1930s.  She falls in love for the first time, but unfortunately it’s with her sister’s fiance, and the bittersweet pain of first love has never been better evoked.  Cassandra begins her diary on a cold, wet, miserable March day (“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”), and the bulk of the book covers the months March, April, May and June.  The whole way Dodie writes about the English countryside shouts of a homesick exile, living as she was in California at the time she wrote it.   When the weather warms up Cassandra takes her diary to write outside, and we get beautiful words like “the moat is full of sky”.  Stand-out scenes are the May Day walk to the village pub, the nocturnal swim in the moat, and Cassandra’s special way of celebrating Midsummer’s Eve.   I often think of it as Dodie’s love letter to home.

Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy

This book spans several years, covering as it does the lives of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, but I first read it in the run-up to Easter, and I always seem to start thinking of Anne at this time of the year, probably because she was executed on May 19th.  There are numerous books about the Tudor wives out on the market, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this one, simply because JP doesn’t try to reinvent the characters to suit some modern perspective, which can often be a failing with modern historical fiction.  It is also Plaidy in her prime, before she had a tendency to slip into sausage machine mode, of churning out several books a year.

Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier

Containing quite possibly one of the most memorable openings in English Literature (“last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), Rebecca concerns a nameless young woman who falls in love with a mysterious older man, Max de Winter, whilst working as a paid companion in the south of France.  He takes her back to his ancestral home in Cornwall, which is still saturated with the memory of his first wife, the beautiful, vibrant Rebecca, who drowned there only a year before.   The main part of the novel is set in late spring/early summer, as Max and his young bride return to Cornwall around May/June time.  I can never forget the huge bank of rhododendrons the narrator sees when she first arrives at Manderley.

Summer At Fairacre by Miss Read

Miss Read – her real name was Mrs Dora Saint – wrote many popular novels set around the fictional small English villages of Fairacre and Thrush Green.  My favourites were the Fairacre school books, narrated by a feisty, good-humoured headmistress.  She began these with Village School in the mid-1950s, and turned them out on a regular basis until Miss Read finally took a well-deserved retirement in the 1990s.   Miss Read remains one of my favourite fictional characters of all time, and I love the gentle, understated humour in these books.   Summer At Fairacre was published in the early 1980s, and begins on March 21st, the first day of Spring, when it snows!  The book covers the next 6 months, coming to a close on Michaelmas Day, at the end of September.  I love it, and Miss Read is often at her funniest in her observations on the absurdities of life.  She’s not as starchy as she can sometimes appear in the early 1950s books.   Yes, these books are cosy and idealistic, but they don’t paint an impossibly idyllic view.  The village has its fair share of strife (particularly if it’s anything to do with Arthur Coggs), and it reminds me of growing up in a small village in the mid-20th century.

Writing about some of these has left me with the slim hope it might inspire the weather to warm up a bit.  I won’t hold my breath on that one.  Anyway, whatever you’re reading this Spring, I hope it gives you as much pleasure as these books have given me.

Copyright

© Sarah Hapgood and sjhstrangetales.wordpress.com, 2011-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah Hapgood and sjhstrangetales.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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