No trains to London: Burgess, Doris and Colonel Blimp

Last month I was surprised – and thrilled – to learn that my essay on the BBC show Pointless had been shortlisted for the 2017 Observer/Anthony Burgess Arts Journalism prize. I don’t enter many writing competitions. About three years ago, in what must have been a blind fever of optimism or delusion, I entered as many as I could. Like the drunkard that I once was, I did not foresee the inevitable hangover of rejection, failure and indifference. Now I tend to avoid competitions that demand my money and my words. There’s better ways of making myself poor (such as buying William Sansom first editions or National Lottery scratchcards). Want to make some easy money? Start a writing competition.

But I was drawn to the Burgess prize. Of course I was. Burgess is one of my favourite writers. He incapable of writing a dull sentence: his prose fizzes with energy and wit. There is earthy erudition on nearly every page. He swaggers, he sparkles. I started (as most people do, I suppose) with A Clockwork Orange. Slim Penguin paperback with the classic cover by David Pelham: cog for an eye, bold colours, the sinister respectability of the bowler hat. I was hooked. Admittedly I was at an age when I was only too willing to be corrupted. I read it while on holiday in Ireland – an unusually bright summer if I remember correctly, which I doubt, for all summers are tainted with sunshine. I had money in my pocket and instead of going into the famous Hargadon Brothers pub, as any self-respecting teenage lad should have done, I visited a small and cluttered bookshop. There was a lot of Yeats, a surfeit of Yeats. There he was, everywhere I looked, thin-faced Yeats in his pince-nez looking a bit too posh and effete for my liking. I came out into the blustery afternoon with four items: a book on Orwell (perhaps my favourite author at the time), Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, a history of  Ireland’s Civil War (that was hard going), and A Clockwork Orange. I was perhaps fifteen, sixteen, unpleasantly awkward and splindly-legged. I wouldn’t have got served in Hargadon’s anyway.

I raced through A Clockwork Orange. The lingo took a while to get used to. After that, it was case of reading whatever Burgess came my way. This was before the internet. Buying books, at least those that could not be found in the glare of WH Smith, often involved getting on bus and visiting a second-hand bookshop in an obscure suburb. I remember picking up a jacketless hardback edition of MF in a small but always browsable second-hand bookshop (more of a cupboard than a shop) in Manchester University’s  Student Union building. (The shop is long gone.)  Manchester’s suburb of Chorlton (now a pseudo-boho enclave) has supplied me with many a Burgess paperback over the years. The Doctor is Sick I bought from a shop on Beech Road (That shop is long gone, too.) I spent many an afternoon in there, under the distrusting eye of the proprietor, perusing the shelves when I should’ve have been writing my masterpiece or washing the dishes. Over the years I built up a library of tatty egg-stained paperbacks and mouldy hardbacks as I chomped my way through the Burgess oeuvre: Tremor of Intent, End of the World News, Nothing Like the Sun. One Hand Clapping, The Wanting Seed. It was always a thrill to find an unread Burgess on the shelves. That particular thrill is gone, for I have read all his novels: but the pleasure of reading them remains. It remains and grows.

So I was invited to this prize-giving in London. I booked my train tickets, bought a new shirt, tousled my barnet. The big day arrived. I was ready. It was also the day of storm Doris. I took no notice of her – a bit of wind and rain, blah blah blah, hardly deserving of a name at all. I set off with my travelling companion to the train station. We found that our train had been cancelled. Oh well. We’ll get the next one. We marched grimly out of the station in search of breakfast, heads down against the rain. We took refuge in a café. Eggs, bacon, sausage, strong tea. A workman studied the sports section of his tabloid. I felt horribly over-dressed, fearful of splattering my tie with yolk, stretching my neck like a giraffe so as to avoid soiling the silken knot. Replenished, we ventured back through the cold, frenzied rain. Thick grey sheets of the stuff. Miserable. Mucky. My trousers sucked up wetness from pavement.

At the station we were met by melancholy staff in red coats. They shook their heads. They apologised. Walkie-talkies crackled with bad news. Delays. Cancellations. A man, small and trim and wearing an expensive-looking raincoat, trotted into the station. He received the grim information with surprising equanimity, almost as if he’d been vindicated. He was on his mobile immediately: ‘Oh,’ he chirped, ‘I’ve spent twenty quid on cabs already but I’m still no nearer … You’ll have to start without me. It’ll be fine … Yes, yes.’ A woman turned up with a small family of suitcases, all as sodden as she was. ‘No trains? Not even the twelve-oh-four? But your website says it’s running … Are you sure? But it says on the website …’ No trains to London. No trains back. The dream was over. We had no choice but to go home. All dressed up and nowhere to go.

I sent an email to Will Carr at the Burgess Foundation in Manchester, explaining the situation. Doris was on the warpath. Country grinds to a halt. I would have to stay at home and watch Pointless instead. (Actually I watched The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a magnificent way to spend a rainy afternoon.)

The next morning I learned that I had won nothing. I tucked away that ten-page acceptance speech in the bottom drawer. I’d lost and hadn’t even been there to witness it.

Doris had done her business in Britain. She was now frolicking over Belgium and Holland, uprooting tulips and blowing the froth off potent beer. Later that morning, as I took an unglamorous train to a familiar place, I looked out and saw a broken fence, it’s wooden planks jagged and jumbled, dreadlocks of green tumbling through the gaps.

I took out my notebook and jotted down a few lines. I must remember to get a refund for those train tickets.

McMara’s Rock – a few reviews

McMara’s Rock, published in Black Static #55 (Nov-Dec 2016), is my longest story to appear in print. (It is not the longest thing I’ve written, but those other beasts have yet to find a home.) I do not know, or cannot remember, how the story developed: often a story begins with no more than a certain image, a particular phrase – it’s an inkling, I suppose. But quite often the words go nowhere. I scratch my head. I drink coffee. The hours drift by. My heart is not in it. The words are flat, they do not fizz. I look at the story: it’s not you, I think, it’s me.

And when I revisit an unfinished or abandoned story, read through the notes (notes that had been jotted down with such enthusiasm, such energy) – well, quite often it’s like meeting an ex. I’m baffled as to what I ever saw in the thing: where’s the spark, the twang, the mystery? My notebooks are full of such false starts, unfulfilled beginnings. So are our memories. So are our days. From my window, as I type this, the bare winter trees, black against the white sky, look like old medical drawings, macabre and grave.

There is a real split rock, of course. I remember it from childhood holidays (rain, green fields, windy beaches, Tayto cheese and onion crisps, hens, gnats, churches, bungalows, more rain). The rock is still there, I believe, in County Sligo, although it is many years since I set eyes upon it. Perhaps you’ll visit it one day. Perhaps you’ll walk through it three times. If so, I wish you  luck.

Here are a few reviews of McMara’s Rock:

From Tangent Online. Review by Seraph:

Given that this was the story chosen to headline #55, so to speak, I expected very great things from Mr. Hargadon. He did not disappoint. We are taken to Ireland, and while the year is indeterminate, it’s not too far in the past, as cars are mentioned at several points. The titular rock, split in half in times far past, is a spectre, like that of death, shadowing the characters within the story like the Reaper himself: Always present, only occasionally seen or mentioned, and inevitably but a few steps behind.

The story follows two brothers, Jerome and Michael, on whose property the rock rests. There is a lengthy legend given to explain the presence of the rock, well executed, and while much of the story revolves around the brothers, never is the rock forgotten, and it haunts the lives of the two boys. Michael is a quiet, withdrawn boy, skirting the line between sanity and madness for much of his life. Jerome is the opposite, outgoing, constantly chasing after the ladies, lost in a different kind of madness that afflicts quite a few young men in their youth, or so I hear. However, it doesn’t take long to find just how disturbed they both are. Ever more withdrawn, Michael clobbers a young girl Jerome had brought to their cottage, purely out of what can only be described as the result of a paranoid persecution complex. Jerome doesn’t seem even to be bothered, suggesting Michael have his way with her while she is twitching half-unconscious on the floor. Were that not bad enough, when she wakes, and cries that she will go to the police, Jerome simply slips her some arsenic and buries her in the vegetable garden. Nonchalant. As if one does such labor every day. Michael is appalled, but only because he is afraid “his brother might make him do something he didn’t know how to do.”

Throughout, the references to Michael’s texts, his strange prayers, his muttering, yield an impression of an incredibly disturbed individual, and yet we see not quite as disturbed as Jerome. Not yet. There is plenty of evidence later in the story that this event has catastrophic consequence. While Jerome spends their inheritance, eventually drinking himself out of his mind and into a ditch, Michael delves deeper and deeper into madness, devouring every book, kept company only by the droning of Mrs. Dolan, an elderly woman who takes care of him as best she is able, and the many feral cats that have made his cottage their home. It’s during this time that the rock captures Jerome’s mind, and in one of his many endless schemes decides to charge admission to viewing the rock. This of course goes over as well as it could, which is not at all. He finds himself shoveling manure for a circus, scheming to make a fake replica of the rock and take it on tour with the circus, and in his drink-addled delirium manages to force himself upon the daughter of the ringmaster, and gets soundly thrashed for his reprehensible conduct. While Jerome wakes up in yet another ditch, Michael is steadily losing his tenuous grasp on reality even further, and his mind is also captured by the rock. It twists and warps the fading sanity of his waking visions, and his desires turn towards the grotesque, fantasizing sexually about his dead mother and his elderly caregiver. It’s not long after, as Jerome is cheating and bedding his way into the pocketbooks of women to make his way home, that Michael turns to far darker pursuits, slaughtering a goat and eating parts of it in a semi-ritualistic experiment, thinking to gain the virility of the goat fabled in arcane texts. Not long after, Jerome finally makes his way home, and after a drunken rage pounding on the cottage door, finds his way out to the field, to test the legend and curse of the rock. He passes out between the two halves, only to fall afoul of Michael’s panicked madness. When Mrs. Dolan brings her daughter to visit him, the daughter finds not only Jerome’s body with his brain scooped out, but any number of just as disturbing elements, such as the goat and the parental bedroom. She falls prey to his grotesqueries, and suffers the same fate as Jerome and the goat. Mrs. Dolan arrives just in time for Michael to offer her the brains of her daughter to eat, claiming it was all for her, so they could live together, forever. She flees, and when the authorities rush to the cottage, they find everything aside from Michael himself, who has vanished. The macabre story ends with another dash of legend about the rock, about how it is cursed. About how it curses anyone who sees it split in half, that it really may not be split at all, finishing on a chilling note. So, there you have it … The most chilling part of the story for me is just how perfectly Michael’s slide into madness is described. It’s also rare to find an author who just takes their time with the story, not rushing it, letting it slowly build so that the mind of the reader does the work of horror. It doesn’t rely on shock value or the supernatural to convey the fear, although there are elements of both present. It is the marching inevitability of death and insanity, building and building, that makes this a masterful stroke of the pen, much like the horror stories of Edgar Allen Poe. If you are a fan of horror/weird fiction, which I can only assume you are if you are reading a review of Black Static, this is a must read, and I heartily recommend it. It is by no means a short offering, but don’t let that discourage you in the slightest. It is well worth your time.


DF Lewis:

…  a classic worthy of your attention …  the characterisation of the two brothers is to die for.



The titular rock is actually a rock split in two. It’s in a field owned by two brothers, Michael and Jerome, near the town of Drumsheedy. There is a legend about how the rock got there, but no one really knows. The two brothers are different. It is Michael who stays at home and would never leave. Jerome travels and gets himself into trouble. But it’s when Jerome comes home that things happen. Nice build-up … to some true horror.


This Is Horror:

First up is ‘McMara’s Rock’, by Stephen Hargadon, easily the longest story here (verging on novella length). It is a … tale of a mysterious split rock in a field in rural Ireland, which finally settles on two brothers who come to inherit the land (and rock), and their tangentially tragic, yet wildly different lives … lyrical and poetically detailed … hints at a larger cosmic horror … there are some wonderful images to be had, and a keen sense of the tragedy of insanity.


Black Static 53 is available from TTA Press here (or from Amazon). Well worth buying a subscription.



Illustration for McMara’s Rock by Ben Baldwin.