Kew to Westminster – five o’clock boat.

ST ALBANS, March 27 – Click. Kew Bridge, one spring afternoon, 2014. I’d been taking photographs in The Royal Botanic Gardens in search of inspiration for a book cover. I knew I’d not found what I was looking for. I’m no photographer. And my camera was a basic silver compact.

Kew Bridge a short bee flight to the botanic gardens.

Still, the return journey down river became a spangled trance of mind. Time to think things through. My story was going nowhere. So what? I was on a river, gliding along on a small boat with time to think. Perhaps stories are bridges in the mind.

3 Open Reach

You surrender to the moment, the mood of the place, the gentle motion of the boat and your own life as you oxbow along. It’s easy to forget that just beyond those trees is a city of nine million souls. Busy, busy. But not here, not on this boat, not this afternoon – cruising along on this soul of soft-flowing water.

It’s some ten miles from the filigree wrought-iron glasshouses of Kew Gardens, to the Palace of Westminster with its green and red benches for commons and Lords. A theme continued in the bridges, Westminster Bridge being green, Lambeth Bridge being red.

But for now we are close to Chelsea Harbour. There’s something exquisitely pleasing in the arch of the Victorian railway bridge below, a simple artistry, an elegant story. Click.

7 Nameless railyway bridge SC05565

Albert Bridge looks almost coy when seen through the arch of Battersea Bridge with its golden livery – a sight which reflects perfectly the power of the magnates securely ensconced in their mansions to the north. A story through a story.

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A satisfyingly golden site for Chelsea's billionaires.

Albert Bridge in its turn frames Chelsea Bridge. But first there follows an aficionado’s view of some steam-punk riveting. And then – click – the railway bridge that thinks it’s a fairytale swan. Yes, there’s a beauty in bridges. From mind to next. From heart to heart. From soul to soul.

Chelsea Bridge, framed in a span of Albert Bridge.

14 Rivetting

And so to the bridge that would be a swan - Grosvenor Bridge.

Click. Bridges thick and  fast. Next up is Vauxhall Bridge, with MI6 to the south and Tate Britain to the north. Each a store stories, living and breathing, here and now.

Vauxhall with Lambeth Bridge just beyond, almost back.

Lambeth Bridge with Westminster Bridge beyond.

People! Readers! - Erm, excuse me up there, care to read 'One Swift Summer'?

And always there is the river. The greatest power in all this. Our inspiration. Our subconscious from which all flows, from which we raise up our little dreams into piers of words, spans and carriages of meaning. We look down into the waters and dream our dreams. And then look up as we glide beneath, a story raised up, a bridge of words, from mind to mind, from heart to heart, from soul to soul. To see how it is, to feel its presence.

Damn, another failed sales peach.

Borne along on a river of dreams, we think of our story and how it will be, whether it will ever prove its worth in the mind and the heart and soul of a reader. Or whether it will be a bridge from nowhere to…

Blackfriars Bridge and the biz.

And so to the tale of the swivel-eyed loon fish who swam from the depths and into the realm of shape-shifting winners, where the best-selling story is money.  Care for a story?


‘Walking over eggshells’ – book review

By R J Askew

ST ALBANS, March 23 – Mother to daughter – ‘How I wish you’d never been born, you’ve caused us all so much grief and pain’.

Lucinda E Clarke’s ‘Walking over eggshells’ is a tale of survival in the face of excoriating maternal rejection.

Some mothers, it seems, are not naturally inclined to be the carriers and guardians of life; where they should comfort they reject, where they should encourage they damn, where they should love they revile.

Mother to daughter – ‘If I’d known how you were going to turn out, I’d never have had you. You are such a disappointment to me, I’m ashamed of you.’

Just typing such razor words is an unsettling experience. I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of them. Nor can I imagine what it takes to utter them.

Personally, I hope I would have walked and carried on walking and never turned back. But this may be easier said than done. Perhaps staying is even harder, however. No, there is no winning for the daughter of such a cruel mother.

Mother to daughter – ‘You’re just an ungrateful child. I told you you’d always be bad, you always have been. You never deserved a mother like me.’

Year after year, decade on decade.

I confess the mother makes an interesting study. Most monsters do. We wonder why and how she is as she is, all sorts of things. And, of course, how we might respond to such systemic and routine belittlement.

The author – who was still getting physically slippered when she was twenty – simply gets on with things as best she can. Her resilience as extreme as the attacks she endures.

We are brutal animals at times. And all this behind a seemingly nice middle-class facade. It was ever thus.

Amazingly, the author doesn’t become an urban terrorist or even a junkie. She goes off to teacher training college. All very normal. Childline had not been dreamed up then. Things were hushed up.

Yet, it was the late 1960s,  and things they were a-changing – the music, hair, hemlines, the pill. To many of the mother’s generation, it was a time of shocking degeneracy, the end of everything.


Inter-familial wars were commonplace, as the new youth pushed and pushed, and the last of the old school tried to keep their ‘children’ in their place.

Mother to daughter – ‘Oh yes, it’s all about the young now, isn’t it? Everything’s for them, nothing for normal  (reviewer’s italics) people.’

So ‘Walking over eggshells’ in some way reflects the wider pain of a new generation, struggling to find its way in a world that was lost and found in a tumult of war and revolt: Vietnam, civil rights, MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction), Led Zeppelin, purple flares. The author even owned the sixty-fifth Mini to roll off the production lines. Now how cool was that?

Yet she still displayed strong traits of the old school. She dates a young Tory and seems set to marry into the burbs. But – what’s this? – a powerful counter-weight to her mother enters the story. Jeremy the job-getter. Alas, Jeremy loses jobs as rapidly as he gets them. That said, he shows off-the-scale initiative, marries the author and whisks her off on a succession of adventures from Scotland to Joburg, via Libya, Kenya, and Botswana.

For this reader, the best part of the book was the time spent in Libya. If you have to escape a cruel mother, Libya is as good a place as any. But in all seriousness, the insights into what seemed like a last hurrah for the buccaneering colonial approach to go-getting was both entertaining and enlightening.

The author was kept very busy in every outpost and became progressively busier when she herself had children and Jeremy-the-job-loser becomes increasingly unreliable, as his drinking and business mishaps mount until he and the author finally drift apart. This part of the story is profoundly sad, reflecting and compounding earlier hurts.

The questions mount along with the debts. I was moved that the author was still struggling to come to terms with her mother in her mid forties.

Both she and her mother remarry, adding further players to their lifelong battle. It makes no sense to an outsider. But this seems to be the essential nature of family warfare – senselessness.

That said, the author was not wont to dwell on her own misfortunes. She was too busy. A surprising new career in radio springs up for her. She gets even busier. She has to be.

Meanwhile, there is her mother, always her mother, unrelenting to the end – apart, perhaps, from when she is medicated.

But by the very end, the author has worked it all out.

Daughter on narcissistic mothers – ‘There is nothing, absolutely nothing you can ever, ever, do to change things. Yes, we can distance ourselves in order to protect ourselves, but we cannot change our mothers’ behaviour, no matter what we do or say.’

I am sure that ‘Walking over eggshells’ is a must read for any woman with an extremely domineering mother.

‘Billy and the Devil’ – book review

By R J Askew

ST ALBANS, March 20 – I made a lot of notes as I read ‘Billy and the Devil.’ Reading over them, I see I wrote ‘BRILL’ next to a chapter title, ‘Drink a bottle of cheap champagne’, and then wrote, ‘Stella. Stella. Cake. Stella.’

The above-mentioned chapter is just sixteen lines long, comprising some ninety-three words. Billy is getting married, he says ‘I do’. But the only reference to his bride is, ‘Her not saying much.’ Twenty-three of the ninety-three-word-tumble are the names of alcoholic drinks – the real loves of Billy’s thunderstorm life.

‘Billy and the Devil’ by Dean Lilleyman is a masterly portrait of an ordinary person who recoils from being ordinary and whose family history dooms him to play the role of the tragic rebel who ‘doesn’t seem to be able to find in-between.’

alcoholic 1

Up to a point all is well. Billy is a joker, ‘the boy who danced against the grain’, a hero to his classmates. He’s quick-witted, he notices things, and he dares to do. Maybe there’s a Billy in every class of fifteen-year-olds. We love his rascally cheekiness. Yes, we know he’s wasting himself, but Billy is Billy. We love him.

But Billy’s a bit of mess beneath his crazy confidence. Three barley wines in a pint pot? Nut-aaah! Still, he’s a laugh and we love him. And of course he’s a hit with the ladies – his mother apart that is. ‘We’re worried about Billy’s drinking’ another kid’s parents tell her, quietly, trying to be helpful. But what can she do? Nothing.

They say alcoholism’s a disease. But a disease of what? The body or the soul? Which rots first? Why does Billy succumb to it, when those around him do not?

The writing in ‘Billy and the Devil’ is at times exquisitely poetic in the acuteness of its observation: a hedgehog’s eye ‘goes orangey-red as Chris turns it towards the headlights’. Sometimes it is savagely brutal. Ernie the pig-man removes the runt from a sow’s litter: ‘her lesser-made son is smashed against the wall, again, again’. I was often reminded of Graham Swift’s writing in his powerful novel, ‘Waterland’.


Yes, there is much rawness in Billy’s young eye. He watches two mongrels making out on the school playing field: ‘the male sits licking its genitals in the six-yard box.’ There is a desperate vigour about the life in him.

And a sadness. On looking at the footprints his wellies have made in the snow of his youth near Mansfield, in Yorkshire, he says it’s ‘funny seeing where you’ve been. I look at each footmark and try to remember being there and how I felt, but I can’t.’ In some ways, some of the chapters of ‘Billy and the Devil’ felt like footprints in the snows of my own youth, especially some of the references to music. And a reference to George Best – another thirsty man – was highly evocative of a certain time and lifestyle.


I’d best not give too much away. There are some eighty-five mostly shortish chapters to the story. When I first looked at the contents page, I thought it might be a collection of verse. The bite-size chapter move the read along smartly through the decades of Billy’s life, yet the story never feels rushed.

Oh and the wit. You will find great wit throughout the story. Sometimes it is just of the half-a-smile-I-know someone-just-like-that variety: Bruce the numpty with his ‘tee-shirt from a Def Leppard tour he never went to see’. The wit keeps pace with the story’s progression into ever darker places, becoming increasingly biting and then cruel. Billy mocks others mercilessly, such is his alienation from the ‘gadges’ but himself ends up as infinitely sadder than the ordinary people he despises. So the joke is on him perhaps. Except it isn’t that funny at all, especially for his wife and kids, or for him. Poor Billy seems scared, loveless, out of touch with all that is gentle. He relates more to Nature, especially birds, than people, who are ‘ugly and tell lies’.

Jameson and Guinness have him firmly in their embrace, fill the voids in his life literally and liberally.

alcoholic 3

As well as its poetic dabs, Billy and the Devil is also in part a play or even a TV script. It is certainly dramatic, a dramatic trek in a jagged emotional mountain range. The peak of the story, at least for me, came at around the 70% mark on my Kindle.

Billy has just been through a reunion with his lost father which – like some nuclear sugar high – has him feeling briefly at one with himself, but which then ends in a shocking sexual encounter of his own making. At every turn, his unrestrained nature leads him to mess up. But – shocking as it is – this is a false peak. There’s more and worst to come for Billy, much worse.

Before we get there, Lilleyman serves up the funniest passage in his story. I won’t detail it, but the chapter in question is ‘On the fifth day of Christmas.’ I loved this deft interlude. The wit comes between two very harsh passages and is appropriately arch.

There then follows a sex scene during the course of which we find ourselves inside Billy’s head, ‘and the picture changes to …’ Even Billy is horrified at how he is: ‘I shake my fucking head till the Etch-A-Sketch changes to slate, but too fucking late.’ Billy is a lost man.


The next chapter ‘Door locked’ gives us just two lines and the last word is ‘Pub’, perhaps used as a verb. Drink is all that Billy has left. Drink is his salvation and escape. Brilliant. The drama of this two line chapter is total.

The other player in all this puts in his one and only appearance shortly after this, as if to check the totality of his dominion over poor Billy: ‘the black  and horny devil scaled the church organ pipes like a cloven-hooved spider.’

We are on the over side now for Billy, the descent. The language is often harsh and crude. But that is fitting. Yet there is elegance, too. Billy is seeking comfort from a priest on the phone while at the same time opening a bottle of Blue Nun. We see him drawing the cork and hear, ‘the glug of the pour’. Such artful and apt working there.

alcoholic 2

It gets better, too. Some of the best wording is at the start of the story, when Billy was a kid and towards the end when  the man that is Billy is regressing and retreating to places he knew when he was a kid. We see the monster Billy and the nature boy Billy back in the woods: ‘as another gust of late summer wind shivers the drooping canopy of leaf, as he spits onto the fly tipping…and the blue night darkens.’ So too, ‘the crack-snap of the dark undergrowth’ evokes the sound of a dark fire burning around his ankles.

And always there is the drink, ‘A half-Bells and six cans of Guinness should take me through to opening time.’ It’s eight-thirty in the morning.

We are not spared. We have to know how it is. And so Lilleyman takes us down a little lower in a brilliant coda of emotional and physical collapse with just a glimpse of redemption. The last chapters of the story felt like being in the centre of a decomposing thunder cloud. The worst is over, but it rumbles on until it is no more and the air clears after its passage. It’s brilliantly raw and feels real.

I was in Brighton this week and saw several Billies swaying or dribbling in their alcoholic tragedy. Yes, Billy’s devil is alive and well and still super busy about his work in the lives of many. Having read Dean Lilleyman’s story I will always wonder who they are and what their stories are. I also went into a pub and – as I gazed at the vividly alluring shelves of schnapps and bourbon – could not help thinking that the Devil has a lot of willing helpers. I felt a little like a collaborator myself as I raised a glass to my lips. Cheers, Billy.

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On polyamory – and a touching dreamstate

ST. ALBANS, March 13 – We all dream of betterment and more. Perhaps our dream quests define who and what we are. Some seem to live our dreams in the real.

And a few – more determined, more vigorous, more alive perhaps, they who must have more, more, more, especially in love – a few go further. Such is their want, they become polyamorous, love more expansively, or so it appears.

But even life’s most driven winners can’t win forever. Nothing lasts. Anyway, imagine how dull life wld be were we to actually have it all, to know it all – forever.

And dreams? May a dream be said to exist? And if not, now may it cease to be?

Perhaps there’s more to dreams than we may know. Perhaps their singular nature in some way precedes our little lives. Perhaps we are in some way the dreams of dreams raised up into that, which for want of a better word, we call reality.

And so to a fiction about a young woman’s dream that becomes a passing reality…

aaaa - this is the one  THREE-DOORS3-amazon-size2

Three millennials – Rhiannon and her two guys – escape the trap of London internery, flat white success, and cycling death in ECIV, for the watercress beds of Hampshire, where choirs of nightingales serenade the free.

And the ghost of an old hippie walks through the woods on her trek to her Celtic dreamstate. While Rhiannon strokes her bump and feels the kick of new life within – and sighs contentedly. And so to a piquant little sorbet, to round things off:


A dream within a dream becomes

Dreamality profoundly real

We touch – o how we touch in verse

We are the dreams of dreams raised up

To he heart-beating wakefulness

In touching loves made one are we

To be, to be, to be set free

We touch our dream – to hear it sigh:

‘Do that again, do that I pray,’

‘That I, a dream, may feel this day.


We touch – o how we touch our dream,

With tender touching fingertips

We are made more than what we seem

To kiss – intrinsicately dreaming lips


In The Room With Three Doors

by R J Askew

My blog is in the oven

ST ALBANS, March 6 – You will need a handy bunch of the freshest Hampshire watercress. And a generous quantity of mozzarella.

Throw a mug of pasta into a pan of boiling water. I leave the actual quantities entirely to your discretion. Turn your oven on. Smile.

While your pasta simmers, wash your watercress and dice three or four large open mushrooms in readiness. Dice another for good measure. This is art.

Sip your wine, which should be red. Progress to stuffing a couple of dozen pitted black olives with garlic. Not too much garlic, mind. Moderation is best.

Rinse your pasta with boiling water and strew a thin layer across the bottom of a baking dish. A little olive oil at this stage may prove efficacious.

Sip wine. Spread your watercress on top of the pasta. You might want to cut your watercress with scissors. Up to you.

Arrange your diced mushrooms in a herringbone pattern studied with the stuffed olives. Add chopped tomatoes – fresh is best. I’d add basil but have none to hand.

Now for your mozzarella, which must be buffalo. Dice several balls into medallions and spread them over the toms. Slide into your oven for twenty minutes. Sip wine.


What are you reading now? I’m into ‘Billy and the Devil’ by Dean Lilleyman, a chilli pepper read. Whoa! And you? I’m curious.

Prepare a bowl of breadcrumbs. Sip wine. Ready your plates and cutlery. Sow breadcrumbs over mozzarella. Grate a little Parmesan over said crumbs. Place under grill to finish off. Refill glass. Sip. This sharing of pleasure is so … pleasurable.

Be at pains not to relax too much and take your eye off the bake. A singed topping is exactly what you do not what. Not that we are measuring or marking here.

Turn off all phones, PC’s, tablets, anything that might intrude upon your enjoyment of this august moment.

Serve. Savour. Return for seconds. Return to reading. So what exactly are you enjoying most about..?

Let the record show empty plates and replete minds.

This ‘Rustic Watercress Bake’ was created for you by R J Askew, author of ‘In The Room With Three Doors’, a contemporary novella set largely in the watercress beds of Hampshire, England. Link to follow. But first: the piquant poetry sorbet, next Friday.