Friday, 30 April 2010

If the coin had come up tails...

If you did a double take there, it means you are awake and sober. No, indeed that is not a page of Leo's and Nikos's art, but a true curiosity, pencilled by Russ Nicholson and inked and colored by Martin. It came about like this...

Years before Mirabilis appeared in Random House's DFC comic, we had been invited to contribute a try-out version of the first episode for their dummy issue. The artwork in that 6-page episode was all by Leo, including the coloring, and it was very different from Mirabilis as you will have seen it. For one thing, the army uniforms looked more WW1 than the dashing dragoon outfits we eventually (at Martin's urging, and quite right too) clothed Jack and Gerard in.

That was mid-2006, a long time before we actually got our very brief run in the comic. Sometime in autumn 2007, the excellent Ben Sharpe, editor of the DFC, asked us to come up with a bunch of Mirabilis stories to appear in The Guardian, a UK newspaper with a very shaky grasp of both epigenetics and spelling. David Fickling, the comic's publisher, didn't want these to be stories that would later appear in the comic. So I quickly cooked up half a dozen standalone stories, of which one became "A Wrong Turning" and Ben must have like them because he wrote back:

"I think they’re really great. Fantastic, actually. It’s not that we didn’t know that you were an accomplished writer, but to have conjured up all these little perfectly formed scenarios in one sitting certainly deserves the doffing of hats. I think these would be great for the paper – and also for the comic and the graphic novels, and etc, etc."
(Btw I've quoted that, not to fan the fires of my own ego, but to show what good taste and discernment Ben has.)

Now, Leo was still hard at work at a couple of books he was contracted to illustrate - and that was even before he could get going on the regular strip. So there was no way he was going to be able to fit in six 5-page stories on top of his other work. Oh, and did I mention these had to be done gratis? So we turned to Russ Nicholson, an old hand at the comics game and one of the many artists who did try-outs for the John Blake strip.

The only problem: I was still tinkering with the scripts and layouts, so I couldn't ask Russ to try out for our Grauniad strips using those. The only finished script to hand was the one from the dummy issue of The DFC, so we sent a couple of pages of that over to Russ and there's the result above.

It looks odd because the original plan for the DFC was to publish in Berliner format (31cm x 47cm) so the pages ended up having way too many panels. Fortunately that plan was abandoned. Much as I dislike the A4 format, it's certainly better for comics than Berliner! Unfortunately, another notion that got abandoned was the whole plan to put the standalone strips in the newspaper, because instead of appearing in the first issues of the comic it had now been decided to start Mirabilis in the Christmas 2008 issue. In the event, those DFC strips that did appear in The Guardian were, I think, then reprinted in the comic anyway, so it would have been a right waste of Russ's time to get him to do 30 pages of comic strips for nowt but a thank you.

Readers of the Fabled Lands blog will know that I'm a big fan of Russ's work. However, I don't think the style he went for there would have fitted alongside the uniquely atmospheric and warm style that Leo and Nikos created between them. In theory, the standalone strips didn't have to mesh with the main Mirabilis story, but there needed to be some sense of them belonging to the same tradition. As I've said elsewhere, Leo and Nikos remind me of the work of Guy Davis and Dave Stewart on B.P.R.D. - or maybe, if we're going back further into the great age of comics, of luminaries like Herb Trimpe, George Tuska and Marie Severin. The style Russ used is more of a traditional British comic look - Steel Claw, say, in Valiant. (Hmm, okay, the art on the Steel Claw was by Jesús Blasco, who was Spanish, but you know what I mean...)

Meanwhile, you may be wondering about that original 6-page episode in the DFC dummy issue. That should remain locked away in the vaults, I think. Like the original Buffy pilot, it served its purpose as a step in the development process. But here are a few frames for comparison with how the characters ended up - and, below that, the real deal as Jack and Gerard find the Kind Gentleman's coin. Leo's and Nikos's work never fails to thrill me. Accept no substitutes.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Greater than the sum of the parts

Every comic artist who has commented on the finished Mirabilis pages has noticed the incredible alchemy that takes place between Leo's drawing and Nikos's coloring. Flattery is all too easy, but I can say with absolute sincerity that I don't think there is a more talented art team working in comics today, and it is my incredible luck to have these gentlemen illustrating the scenarios I come up with. Add to that the truly phenomenal covers that Martin has produced and I could want for almost nothing else. Oh, except for publication, obviously.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Final destination

We like locomotives. And we like things that are a bit unsettling. So check out this brilliant animation, Madame Tutli-Putli, by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski - interviewed here - and a whole talented team with too many consonants in their names to list here.

If this appeals, you may want to pop over to Wrong - the modern magazine in the tradition of Weird Tales, EC Comics and Warren - and Coven 13, of course. The idea of the magazine is that it is wholly owned by the creators themselves. Come and give it your support; dictatorships aren't toppled by people saying, "I might show my face next week."

Friday, 23 April 2010

Saints alive

He has only the briefest of cameo appearances in Mirabilis, but today is St George's Day so here's his take on the whole Year of Wonders phenomenon. The "tail of a dragon" - well, that's a locomotive, of course, a theme we'll be returning to on Sunday.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Mirabilis: l'année des merveilles

My wife Roz, better known in blogging circles as Dirty White Candy, was at the London Book Fair today. It's actually her second LBF this year, and the last time round she was chatting to Clint Eastwood, but that's another story. Today she came home with some bits 'n' bobs of interest to me, including a nicely produced little booklet that comprises a taster menu for the best of French graphic novels. And the best of French, of course, is the best in the world. So here's a reprise of an earlier post for our cousins from across the Channel - excuse me, La Manche - and especially the ladies and gentlemen of Casterman, Gallimard, Delcourt, Soleil, Dargaud, Dupuis, Le Lombard, Futuropolis, Quæ Éditions, and the rest. We could do with you guys over here in the UK. Anyway, here is the first-ever episode of Mirabilis, entitled La Piqûre! - enjoy, and we hope you have a great time in London.

Pistols at dusk

Another sneak peek into the eventful life of Jack Ember - or possibly I mean John Spark. Keep collecting these and eventually you'll have the whole of the Winter book. Incidentally, notice the Doc Strange influence?

Monday, 12 April 2010

Cloud 109 and the lunch that lasted till breakfast

Like a stack of dominoes tumbling over, or a single fissile atom setting off a chain reaction, a whole bunch of blogs were late this weekend because of a long lunch chez Morris with the incredibly talented Peter Richardson and David Orme, artist and writer respectively of Cloud 109.

I say a long lunch - it was very long, and turned into rather more than just lunch. After chicken satay sandwiches, a delicious banoffi pie that Peter brought from Cook in Battle, hours of interesting conversation, and many cups of tea in the glorious spring sunshine, David had to run to catch his train, but Peter was almost out the door when we managed to drag him back, ply him with beer and wine and lasagne, set the creative world to rights - and the next thing we knew, a phone was buzzing like a trapped insect. Well, it couldn't be mine or Roz's because we never switch them on. It was in fact Peter's wife, just calling to tell him that he'd missed his train home. Undeniably true - it was one of those evenings where we all thought it was about 9:30 but the clock insisted it was nearly midnight.

In the course of the evening, we cooked up the germ of a master plan to free comic creators from their shackles. Let the Empire tremble and the Sith scatter in fear, the rebels are about to commandeer their own Death Star and get thermonuclear on their asses! Well, maybe not anything quite so belligerent, that's the Lussac-Saint-Émilion talking (thanks, David) - but it is an exciting and slightly Marxist idea for pooling a mass of scintillating creative talent in a way that allows the writers and artists to reap the rewards of their own labours. Oh, and that incidentally will give birth to the new Creepy and Eerie. I'll be getting touch with some of you offline to talk about that.

Apart from the opportunity to get together with two fellow authors whose work I hugely admire, I also got my mitts on a copy of the Cloud 109 teaser book from Lulu. The art continues a little further with the story than we've so far seen on the blog, but the book also includes the script right to the end of book one. Well, my resolve not to look at that lasted all of ten seconds. Obviously I wouldn't dream of putting up any spoilers here, but I will say that the ending is everything you'd hope for - not only tying up the first part of the story, but planting the seeds that will take it on in the next two books. And I am in awe of David's deft control in telling a story at cinematic speed without ever seeming like it's rushed or missing anything. One to watch out for. Even Roz, who is not usually a comics reader, has lately been intrigued by both Mezolith and Cloud 109, and if I can drag her away from Nail Your Novel long enough, she's promised to do us a review.

Here by the way is the original image of Goth Gina in the Cloud 109 chatroom. Peter explains on the blog why he changed this by giving her spooky contact lenses, and for the sake of the story I think he was right to do so. But he did mention on Sunday that he liked the sad beauty of the simpler version. And just to show that every comics heroine needs a Goth outfit in their wardrobe, here's Estelle (as drawn by Martin and by Leo) freeing that inner sexy darkness. Down, boys.

Friday, 9 April 2010

"The Hair" by A J Alan

Another of early broadcaster A J Alan's tall tales today, following his return to public domain. I like to think that Mr Alan (that is, Mr Lambert, I should say) would appreciate these yarns, originally broadcast in the late '20s and early '30s on the wireless, finding a new lease of life on today's cool new(ish) mass communication medium.

I'm going to give you an account of certain occurrences. I shan't attempt to explain them because they're quite beyond me. When you've heard all the facts, some of you may be able to offer suggestions. You must forgive me for going into a certain amount of detail. When you don't understand what you're talking about it's so difficult to know what to leave out.

This business began in the dark ages, before there was any broadcasting. In fact, in 1921.

I'd been staying the week-end with a friend of mine who lives about fifteen miles out of Bristol.

There was another man stopping there, too, who lived at Dawlish. Well, on the Monday morning our host drove us into Bristol in time for the Dawlish man to catch his train, which left a good deal earlier than the London one. Of course, if old Einstein had done his job properly, we could both have gone by the same train. As it was, I had over half an hour to wait. Talking of Einstein, wouldn't it be almost worth while dying young so as to hear what Euclid says to him when they meet--wherever it is?

There was a funny little old sort of curiosity shop in one of the streets I went down, and I stopped to look in the window. Right at the back, on a shelf, was a round brass box, not unlike a powder-box in shape, and it rather took my fancy. I don't know why--perhaps it was because I'd never seen anything quite like it before. That must be why some women buy some hats.

Anyway, the shop window was so dirty that you could hardly see through it, so I went inside to have a closer look. An incredibly old man came out of the back regions and told me all he knew about the box, which wasn't very much. It was fairly heavy, made of brass, round, four inches high, and about three inches in diameter. There was something inside it, which we could hear when we shook it, but no one had ever been able to get the lid off. He'd bought it from a sailor some years before, but couldn't say in the least what part of the world it came from.

"What about fifteen bob?"

I offered him ten, and he took it very quickly, and then I had to sprint back to the station to catch my train. When I got home I took the box up into my workshop and had a proper look at it. It was extremely primitive as regards work, and had evidently been made by hand, and not on a lathe. Also, there had been something engraved on the lid, but it had been taken off with a file. Next job was to get the lid off without doing any damage to it. It was a good deal more than hand tight, and no ordinary methods were any good. I stood it lid downwards for a week in a dish of glycerine as a start, and then made two brass collars, one for the box and one for the lid. At the-end of the week I bolted the collars on, fixed the box in the vice and tried tapping the lid round with a hammer--but it wouldn't start. Then, I tried it the other way and it went at once. That explained why no one had ever been able to unscrew it--it had a left-handed thread on it. Rather a dirty trick--especially to go and do it all those years before.

Well, here it was, unscrewing very sweetly, and I began to feel quite like Howard Carter, wondering what I was going to find. It might go off bang, or jump out and hit me in the face. However, nothing exciting happened when the lid came off. In fact, the box only seemed to be half-full of dust, but at the bottom was a curled-up plait of hair. When straightened out, it was about nine inches long and nearly as thick as a pencil. I unplaited a short length, and found it consisted of some hundreds of very fine hairs, but in such a filthy state (I shoved them under the microscope) that there was nothing much to be seen. So I thought I'd clean them. You may as well know the process--first of all a bath of dilute hydrochloric acid to get the grease off, then a solution of washing soda to remove the acid. Then a washing in distilled water, then a bath of alcohol to get rid of any traces of water, and a final rinsing in ether to top off with.

Just as I took it out of the ether they called me down to the telephone, so I shoved it down on the first clean thing which came handy, namely, a piece of white cardboard, and went downstairs. When I examined the plait later on, the only thing of interest that came to light was the fact that the hairs had all apparently belonged to several different women. The colours ranged from jet-black, through brown, red, and gold, right up to pure white. None of the hair was dyed, which proved how very old it was. I showed it to one or two people, but they didn't seem very enthusiastic, so I put it, and its box, in a little corner cupboard we have, and forgot all about it.

Then the first strange coincidence happened.

About ten days later a pal of mine called Matthews came into the club with a bandage across his forehead. People naturally asked him what was the matter, and he said he didn't know, and what's more the doctor didn't know. He'd suddenly flopped down on his drawing-room floor, in the middle of tea, and lain like a log. His wife was in a fearful stew, of course, and telephoned for the doctor. However, Matthews came round at the end of about five minutes, and sat up and asked what had hit him. When the doctor blew in a few minutes later he was pretty well all right again except for a good deal of pain in his forehead. The doctor couldn't find anything the matter except a red mark which was beginning to show on the skin just where the pain was.

Well, this mark got clearer and clearer, until it looked just like a blow from a stick. Next day it was about the same, except that a big bruise had come up all round the mark. After that it got gradually better. Matthews took the bandage off and showed it me at the club, and there was nothing much more than a bruise with a curved red line down the middle of it, like the track of a red-hot worm.

They'd decided that he'd had an attack of giddiness and must somehow have bumped his head in falling. And that was that.

About a month later, my wife said to me: "We really must tidy your workshop!" And I said: "Must we?" And she said: "Yes, it's a disgrace." So up we went.

Tidying my workshop consists of putting the tools back in their racks, and of my wife wanting to throw away things she finds on the floor, and me saying: "Oh, no, I could use that for so and so."

The first thing we came across was the piece of white cardboard I'd used to put the plait of hair on while I'd run to the telephone that day.

When we came to look at the other side we found it was a flashlight photograph of a dinner I'd been at. You know what happens. Just before the speeches a lot of blighters come in with a camera and some poles with tin trays on the top, and someone says: "Will the chairman please stand?" and he's helped to his feet. Then there's a blinding flash and the room's full of smoke, and the blighters go out again. Later on a man comes round with proofs, and if you are very weak--or near the chairman--you order one print.

Well, this dinner had been the worshipful company of skate-fasteners or something, and I'd gone as the guest of the same bloke Matthews I've already been telling you about, and we'd sat "side by each," as the saying is. My wife was looking at the photograph, and she said: "What's that mark on Mr. Matthews's forehead?" And I looked--and there, sure enough, was the exact mark that he'd come into the club with a month before. Thecurious part being, of course, that the photograph had been taken at least six months before he'd had the funny attack which caused the mark. Now, then--on the back of the photograph, when we examined it, was a faint brown line. This was evidently left by the plait of hair when I'd pinned it out to dry, and it had soaked through and caused the markon Matthews's face. I checked it by shoving a needle right through the cardboard. Of course, this looked like a very strange coincidence, on the face of it. I don't know what your experience of coincidences is--but mine is that they usually aren't.

Anyway, I took the trouble to trace out the times, and I finally established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I had pinned the hair out on the photograph between four and a quarter-past on a particular day, and that Matthews had had his funny attack on the same day at about a quarter-past four. That was something
like a coincidence. Next, the idea came to me to try it again. Not on poor old Matthews, obviously--he'd already had some--and, besides, he was a friend of mine. I know perfectly well that we are told to be kind to our enemies, and so on--in fact, I do quite a lot of that--but when it comes to trying an experiment of this kind--even if the chances are a million to one against it being a success, I mean having any result--one naturally chooses an enemy rather than a friend. I looked round for a suitable--victim--someone who wouldn't be missed much in case there happened to be another coincidence. The individual on whom my choice fell was the nurse next door.

We can see into their garden from our bathroom window--and we'd often noticed the rotten way she treated the child she had charge of when she thought no one was looking. Nothing one could definitely complain about--you know what a thankless job it is to butt into your neighbour's affairs--but she was systematically unkind, and we hated the sight of her. Another thing--when she first came she used to lean over the garden wall and sneak our roses--at least, she didn't even do that--she used to pull them off their stalks and let them drop--I soon stopped that. I fitted up some little arrangements of fish-hooks round some of the most accessible roses and anchored them to the ground with wires. There was Hell-and-Tommy the next morning, and she had her hand done up in bandages for a week.

Altogether she was just the person for my experiment. The first thing was to get a photograph of her, so the next sunny morning, when she was in the garden, I made a noise like an aeroplane out of the bathroom window to make her look up, and got her nicely. As soon as the first print was dry, about eleven o'clock the same night, I fastened the plait of hair across the forehead with two pins--feeling extremely foolish, as one would, of course, doing an idiotic thing like that--and put it away in a drawer in my workshop. The evening of the next day, when I got home, my wife met me and said: "What do you think--the nurse next door was found dead in bed this morning." And she went on to say that the people were quite upset about it, and there was going to be an inquest, and all the rest of it. I tell you, you could have knocked me down with a brick. I said: "No, not really; what did she die of?" You must understand that my lady wife didn't know anything about the experiment. She'd never have let me try it. She's rather superstitious--in spite of living with me. As soon as I could I sneaked up to the workshop drawer and got out the photograph, and--I know you won't believe me, but it doesn't make any difference--when I unpinned the plait of hair and took it off there was a clearly-marked brown stain right across the nurse's forehead. I tell you, that _did_ make me sit up, if you like--because that made twice--first Matthews and now--now.

It was rather disturbing, and I know it sounds silly, but I couldn't help feeling to blame in some vague way.

Well, the next thing was the inquest--I attended that, naturally, to know what the poor unfortunate woman had died of. Of course, they brought it in as "death from natural causes," namely, several burst bloodvessels in the brain; but what puzzled the doctors was what had caused the"natural causes"--also, she had the same sort of mark on her forehead as Matthews had had. They had gone very thoroughly into the theory that she might have been exposed to X-rays--it _did_ look a bit like that--but it was more or less proved that she couldn't have been, so they frankly gave it up. Of course, it was all very interesting and entertaining, and I quite enjoyed it, as far as one can enjoy an inquest, but they hadn't cleared up the vexed question--did she fall or was she pu--well, had she snuffed it on account of the plait of hair, or had she not? Obviously the matter couldn't be allowed to rest there--it was much too thrilling. So I looked about for someone else to try it on and decided that a man who lived in the house opposite would do beautifully. He wasn't as bad as the nurse because he wasn't cruel--at least, not intentionally--he played the fiddle--so I decided not to kill him more than I could help.

The photograph was rather a bother, because he didn't go out much. You've no idea how difficult it is to get a decent full-face photograph of a man who knows you by sight without him knowing. However, I managed to get one after a fortnight or so. It was rather small and I had to enlarge it, but it wasn't bad considering. He used to spend most of his evenings up in a top room practising, double stopping and what-not--so after dinner I went up to my workshop window, which overlooks his, and waited for him to begin. Then, when he'd really warmed up to his job, I just touched the plait across the photograph--not hard, but--well, like you do when you are testing a bit of twin flex to find out which wire is which, you touch the ends across an accumulator or an H.T. battery. Quite indefensible in theory, but invariably done in practice. (Personally, I always use the electric light mains--the required information is so instantly forthcoming.) Well, that's how I touched the photograph with the plait. The first time I did it my bloke played a wrong note. That was nothing, of course, so I did it again more slowly. This time there was no doubt about it. He hastily put down his fiddle and hung out of the window, gasping like a fish for about five minutes. I tell you, I was so surprised that I felt like doing the same.

However, I pulled myself together, and wondered whether one ought to burn the da--er--plait or not. But there seemed too many possibilities in it for that--so I decided to learn how to use it instead. It would take too long to tell you all about my experiments. They lasted for several months, and I reduced the thing to such an exact science that I could do anything from giving a gnat a headache to killing a man. All this, mind you, at the cost of one man, one woman, lots of wood-lice, and a conscientious objector. You must admit that that's pretty moderate, considering what fun one _could_ have had with a discovery of that kind.

Well, it seemed to me that, now the control of my absent treatment had been brought to such a degree of accuracy, it would be rather a pity not to employ it in some practical way. In other words, to make a fortune quickly without undue loss of life.

One could, of course, work steadily through the people one disliked, but it wouldn't bring in anything for some time.

I mean, even if you insure them first you've got to wait a year before they die, or the company won't pay, and in any case it begins to look fishy after you've done it a few times. Then I had my great idea: Why shouldn't my process be applied to horse-racing? All one had to do was to pick some outsider in a race--back it for all you were worth at about 100 to 1, and then see that it didn't get beaten.

The actual operation would be quite simple. One would only have to have a piece of card-board with photographs of all the runners stuck on it--except the one that was to win, of course--and then take up a position giving a good view of the race.

I wasn't proposing to hurt any of the horses in the least. They were only going to get the lightest of touches, just enough to give them a tired feeling, soon after the start. Then, if my horse didn't seem to have the race well in hand near the finish, I could give one more light treatment to any horse which still looked dangerous.

It stood to reason that great care would have to be taken not to upset the tunning too much. For instance, if all the horses except one fell down, or even stopped and began to graze, there would be a chance of the race being declared void.

So I had two or three rehearsals. They worked perfectly. The last one hardly was a rehearsal because I had a tenner on at 33 to 1, just for luck--and, of course, it came off.

However, it wasn't as lucky as it sounds. Just outside the entrance to the grandstand there was rather a squash and, as I came away I got surrounded by four or five men who seemed to be pushing me about a bit, but it didn't strike me what the game was until one of them got his hand into the breast-pocket of my coat.

Then I naturally made a grab at him and got him just above the elbow with both hands, and drove his hand still further into my pocket. That naturally pushed the pocket, with his hand inside it, under my right arm, and I squeezed it against my ribs for all I was worth.

Now, there was nothing in that pocket but the test tube with the plait of hair in it, and the moment I started squeezing it went with a crunch. I'm a bit hazy about the next minute because my light-fingered friend tried to get free, and two of his pals helped him by bashing me over the head. They were quite rough. In fact, they entered so heartily into the spirit of the thing that they went on doing it until the police came up and collared them.

You should have seen that hand when it did come out of my pocket. Cut to pieces, and bits of broken glass sticking out all over it--like a crimson tipsy cake. He was so bad that we made a call at a doctor's on the way to the police station for him to have a small artery tied up. There was a cut on the back of my head that wanted a bit of attention, too. Quite a nice chap, the doctor, but he was my undoing. He was, without doubt, the baldest doctor I've ever seen, though I once saw a balder alderman.

When he'd painted me with iodine, I retrieved the rest of the broken glass and the hair from the bottom of my pocket and asked him if he could give me an empty bottle to put it in. He said: "Certainly," and produced one, and we corked the hair up in it. When I got home, eventually, I looked in the bottle, but apart from a little muddy substance at the bottom it was empty--the plait of hair had melted away.

Then I looked at the label on the bottle, and found the name of a much-advertised hair restorer.

Friday, 2 April 2010

"The 19 Club" by A J Alan

I belong to a dining club – as a matter of fact I’m the secretary – but apart from that there's nothing much to distinguish it from lots of other clubs of a similar kind. It's called the 19 Club.

You may think that sounds rather mysterious, but it isn't in the least, really. There are nineteen members and it was started in 1919, so I don't honestly see how it could have been called anything else.

We are just a lot of people who had a certain job to do during the war, and when it was over we thought it would be rather fun for us all to meet and have dinner together every now and then. So we do, twice a year: on June the first and December the first. When the date falls on a Sunday we make it the Monday.

This arrangement saves the secretary a lot of work, as there aren't any notices to send out – in fact being a secretary is no trouble at all. We always stick to the same restaurant and I go in two or three days before and order the dinner. When it's over, just before we leave, I go round and collect thirty bob or so from everyone and hand it straight over to the head-waiter; he gives me a receipt, which I generally lose, and there you are.

Nothing could possibly be simpler from my point of view, or, you'd think, from anyone else's, but it was this very simplicity which nearly landed us in a mess on June the first this year.

If you’ll examine our somewhat casual procedure for a moment, you’ll see that it leaves the management of the restaurant, and of course the waiters, quite in the dark as to who any of us are (not that we care): for all they know is that we are the "19 Club", and they write it up on a card down in the hall. There's a highly polished mahogany board on an easel just inside the entrance, giving the names of the rooms –
and they shove it on that.

Well, by some mischance, a prowling journalist in search of prey wandered into the hall during our last December meeting, and he happened to see this card.

He asked who we were and the people down below couldn't tell him because they didn't know – they said they had no information about us of any kind. This appears to have piqued his curiosity, and he promptly sent up his card addressed to the secretary asking for an immediate interview.

A waiter brought it to me during quite an amusing speech that was going on, and I thought it was rather cheek. I just said "No", or words to that effect, and would Mr. Heacham please go away – Heacham was the name on the card. I mean, the freedom of the Press is all very well in its way, but if a few friends can't dine together quietly without reporters butting in – well, it's a bit too thick. However, Mr. Heacham did not go away. He seems to have hung about outside for the rest of the evening until we left, and then got the commissionaire at the door to point me out to him. I never saw him at all, but he must have followed me home and then looked up my name in the directory, because two days later there was a letter from him – he wrote from some office in the Strand.

He described himself as a free-lance journalist and said that he’d been commissioned by the editor of a well-known London Daily to write a series of articles on dining clubs. Mind you, I never believe this story because I think it's so much more likely that they write the articles first and hawk them round to the editors afterwards – but I may be wrong. He went on to ask for the names of all our members, together with any biographical details likely to interest the public, and so on. I believe he added that it would be a fine advertisement for us. At any rate I called loudly for my stylographic pen and wrote him a letter to which he made no reply – and there it was. But it only goes to show that some people don't like you to mind your own business.

By the bye, I made a statement a minute or two ago which, I'm afraid, wasn't strictly accurate: I said that when this man's card was brought to me at the dinner, there was a speech going on. Well, actually, we don't have speeches in the generally accepted sense of the term – what merely happens is this. Supposing anyone does something clever or interesting, like flying to Australia and back or motoring across China or inventing something wonderful, we ask him to come and dine, and then afterwards he just gets up and spouts about it – er, describes his achievement in an informal kind of way.

And we don't confine ourselves to respectable exploits either. If anyone were to break into the Bank of England and get away with a million pounds, I'm quite sure we should ask him to come and tell us exactly how he did it. So you can see that in one way and another we do get a good deal of amusement and instruction, but we don't attempt to get it for nothing. Oh no: there's an honorarium of ten guineas which we always hope the guest of the evening will accept, and we are getting more and more sanguine about its getting accepted, because no one's ever refused it yet. You'd be surprised at some of the distinguished people to whom a tenner hasn't come amiss: in fact the man who pouched my furtive envelope with the greatest gusto was a certain Chancellor of the Exchequer – I shan't say who it was. He'd come along and explained his budget to us.

It isn't anyone's job in particular to procure these artists, but we all keep our eyes open for suitable “turns”.

At all events, last March I happened to come across a paragraph in the newspaper. It was tucked away in a corner but it took my fancy very much. It was all about an Englishman called Kennedy who'd escaped from a foreign prison. There's apparently a small island off the coast of Java which the Dutch use as a convict settlement, and Kennedy was there serving a sentence of ten years.

Well, whether they weren't kind to him, or he'd got tired of the place, I don't know, but one fine morning he decided to leave. He climbed over the barbed wire when no one was looking and made straight for the house of the Governor of the island.

The Governor wasn't in, so Master Kennedy went into his bedroom, put on one of his uniforms and strolled down to the harbour. There he borrowed the Governor's motor-boat and left the island flying the Governor's flag. He even managed to extract a salute from one of our light cruisers which was lying in the harbour at the time.

After that all trace of him was lost. I showed this paragraph to several other members of the 19 Club, and they all agreed that he was just the lad for us if only we could get hold of him.

It so happened that I knew the editor of the paper which had published the report, and I went round and asked him to let me know if he ever heard anything more. He promised to make enquiries, but he wasn't very hopeful.

However, roughly seven weeks later I got a somewhat cryptic letter from a man in Chiswick. He said he was just back from the East and understood that I'd been enquiring about a certain person whose name began with K. If I still wanted the information would I please call at the address on his letter (No. 23 something-or-other Gardens) and ask for John Smith. This I did that same afternoon. Something-or-other Gardens (and I'm not going to give the name) consisted entirely of red-brick villas with "Apartments to Let" in the windows. The door was opened to me by an obvious landlady – quite a nice old thing – and when I asked for John Smith she somehow looked as though she knew it was an assumed name. She said he was expecting me, but would I mind not stopping too long as he'd been ill. I promised not to, of course, and then she showed me into the right-hand front sitting-room.

It was typically, but comfortably, furnished. There I found a nervous little rabbit of a man of about thirty-five who kept darting to the window and peering out into the street. He also had one of those high voices which have never broken – it was so pronounced that it was quite difficult to get used to. We discussed the weather until the landlady got tired of listening at the door, and he admitted what I'd already guessed, and you too, probably, that he wasn't John Smith at all but John Kennedy, the escaped convict himself. He apologised for receiving me in such a hole-and-corner way but he was terrified of the police finding him and banding him over to the Dutch. I said they'd get no help from me, and we finally got down to the business of the 19 Club dinner.

He was a bit chary at first of coming out into the open so much, but he eventually thought he'd risk it, and he brightened up quite a lot at the idea of a tenner. The only trouble was that he was what they call "a bit pushed for the stuff" and he only had the clothes he stood up in. Could anything be done in the way of an advance? He was quite frank about his affairs: he'd had a bad go of flu soon after landing which had left him with a flabby heart muscle and prevented him from looking for a job; he was in debt to his landlady, and altogether things weren't too rosy. Anyway, I was able to let him have enough to square his landlady and get some clothes, and I also told him I'd get the Club to spring a bit more in the way of fee. I was most careful not to refer to his prison experiences because he didn't seem up to it, so I gave him the time and place of the dinner and came away. My only regret was that his voice was so singularly unsuitable for the recital of daring deeds.

It would be as well, perhaps, to explain that to get to the room we dine in at the restaurant you have to go through a sort of ante-room, and it is our custom to assemble first of all for sherry and cocktails in this smaller room.

Well, on June the first we were all waiting in this room when John Smith walked in. (We'd arranged to go on calling him that in his own interest.)

He looked a good deal better in health than when I'd seen him last, but he'd evidently been fortifying himself against the ordeal of delivering his discourse. Not that he was at all screwed, but he had undoubtedly had one or two. It was a good thing he was a bit late and that there was only time for him to have one glass of sherry before we went in. I also took the precaution of sitting next to him and seeing that he didn't overdo it. It seemed mean, but it was no use him getting tight too soon.

Anyway, dinner went off all right, and soon after “the King”, when the waiters had all cleared out, our chairman invited him to tell us about his experiences out East. He also gave an assurance on behalf of the Club that nothing he said would go any further. Whereupon John Smith Kennedy got up and proceeded to tell his story, and a very astonishing story it was.

He led off by saying that the crime of which he'd been convicted had been a burglary in Brussels, of all places.

No one said anything, but most of us thought it rather peculiar for a man to be sent to a Dutch penal settlement for an offence, however heinous, against the laws of Belgium. He made other equally glaring mistakes too, and it soon became perfectly clear that the whole story was a pack of lies from beginning to end and that he'd never been nearer Java than Southend.

Things got so ridiculous that it was finally put to him that he was romancing – and he admitted it without any beating about the bush. He said lie wasn't the man Kennedy at all, that he'd never been in prison, and that the whole thing was a hoax. We said, “Ha, ha, very funny and all that, but if you aren't Kennedy, who are you?”

And then he sprang his great surprise.

You remember that man Heacham, the journalist who'd sent un his card and tried to find out about the Club? Well – he was Heacham, getting a bit of his own back. I didn't see at first how he'd got hold of the Kennedy story in connection with us, but he explained with fiendish glee that he occasionally did work for my editor man, and he'd actually been sent for and given the job of making enquiries about it. The editor must have mentioned my name and told him why I wanted the information. Needless to say he hadn't traced Kennedy, but he'd used the circumstances to score off me and the Club – and there was no denying that he'd done it jolly well. We shouldn't have cared two hoots if lie hadn't been so beastly offensive: he strutted up and down and jeered at us and that wasn't the worst – he was going straight along to the Daily What Not and the whole story would be in the paper next morning, complete with such of our names as he knew. He got so truculent that if he hadn't been our guest I am quite sure someone would have slogged him on the beak. We told him that we didn't wish the story to appear in the paper and should take steps to prevent it, whereupon he completely lost his hair and got awfully excited. He said: "I'm still in the doctor's hands for my heart. If you offer me any violence it'll be the worse for you". It was pointed out to him that no one had the slightest intention of using any violence, and I can't make it too clear that nothing which any of us said or did could have been taken as in the least threatening.

We did, however, say that before we left we should like a few minutes to discuss the situation in private, and would he mind going into the anteroom.

He did, and one of us went with him to keep him company.

Well, the rest of us hadn't been talking, for more than a minute when the man who'd gone in with Heacham appeared at the door and said, "I wish you fellers would come and have a look at this bird. He doesn't seem very well".

So we all crowded in and – my word – he didn't look at all well. He'd fallen forward in a chair, apparently in a faint or fit or something.

One of our members was a doctor and he examined him for a moment, and then he said, "I'm sorry, good people, but this is a bad show. The man's dead", and he went on to explain how a heavy dinner and over-excitement had caused acute dilatation of the heart when it was a bit groggy, and it had snuffed out. Extremely simple, no doubt, from the medical point of view, but devilish awkward from ours.

We were very sorry, of course, but, at the same time, we couldn't help feeling a little annoyed with this person for coming to the dinner under false pretences and then going and dying on us as well, so there definitely wasn't the frantic amount of sympathy which there otherwise would have been. It would be bound to get into the papers, and a tragedy like that always does a restaurant a certain amount of harm, and it would also mean that some of us would have to spend a merry morning in the coroner's court.

So we were all standing about looking rather grave, and putting our cigars down, when one man remarked in a thoughtful kind of way: "What an awful lot of trouble it would have saved if only this individual could have survived long enough to get home". And then he gave a little nod – just like that; and, as everyone knows, a nod is sometimes as a good as a wink, especially when it comes from anyone as high up in the service as he was – and his meaning was so utterly scandalous that I'm sure all of you will have grasped it.

I asked him. I said: "Is it too late, sir, for you to get a game of bridge somewhere?" And he thought: No, it wasn't too late. He caught the eye of two or three more of similar rank to himself and they all sauntered out.

When they'd gone we put our heads together and settled our course of action.

We posted a man on the door to keep out stray waiters and went and fetched all the hats and coats, including the unfortunate Heacham's. While we were putting his on, the man with the largest car was told to go and get it and send his chauffeur home. As soon as word came through that it was at the door we got a move on.

A sort of advance guard of five went on ahead to make a demonstration. They were to send all available commissionaires for cars and taxis and generally clear the entrance of hotel staff. The main body, so to speak, followed a little way behind—this main body consisted of another man and me supporting Heacham, with the rest of the 19 Club in close formation all round us.

We went down the stairs without the slightest check, all laughing and talking, though not feeling a bit like it; but when we got into the hall we were confronted by a most appalling snag. They'd gone and rigged up the revolving doors. They'd been folded back out of the way before dinner, but I suppose it must have turned cooler during the evening. Anyway, there the brutes were revolving away like anything, and we wondered how on earth we were going to manage. Perhaps some of you've tried going through those doors two at once. It's a bit of a squash at the best of times, when you're both of you alive, but you try it when one of you isn't and you'll admit that it's no fun at all.

We couldn't stop and confer without attracting attention, so our front rank went through and formed a screen on the outside. Then, as secretary of the Club, I felt it my duty to be entirely responsible for our guest, and he gave me no help at all. When we were half-way through and completely shut off from the outer world, his hat fell off – I had to retrieve it with one hand and keep him propped up with the other. The people who were turning the doors round saw and backed water to give me time, but it was a trying experience and I'm quite prepared to swap nightmares with anyone. I didn't feel happy until we'd got him into the car, and even then "happy" is rather an over-statement. Another man and I sat with him between us at the back, and there was just the owner in front, driving. He drove very carefully, too, because it wouldn't have done for us to run into anything and all get asked for our names and addresses. Also, we didn't want to get to Chiswick too early. As it was, in spite of simply crawling the whole way, we found a light in the first floor window, so we kept straight on. We came back in ten minutes but it was still there, and we drove about the district for the best part of an hour, passing the house at intervals, before it was put out.

However, it finally was, and the last stage of our operations began.

The car dropped us and drove off to wait a few turnings away. The other man and I carried our friend up the garden path and in at the front door. This was easy because we'd got his key, but then we struck another bad patch. When I'd called at the house the first time there'd been linoleum on the hall floor, but this had evidently been taken up, leaving nothing but bare tiles. There wasn't even a mat, and when we stepped on to these tiles straight off a gravel path you can imagine the row we made – slate pencils weren't in it – and it woke the landlady.

She came to the top of the stairs and called down: "Is that Mr. Heacham?" and I said "Yes”, in a very high voice (after all it was). Then she said "Your cocoa's on the kitchen stove", and I said, "Thanks very much. Good night", and she mercifully went back to bed.

We then breathed again and got Heacham into his room and switched on the light. We took off his hat and coat and arranged him as naturally as we could in an armchair. I went along to the kitchen and fetched his cocoa and cup and saucer and poured some out for him.

If we'd been his murderers, and we almost felt like it, we couldn't have taken more pains, but I should like to put it on record that from first to last he was treated with all due respect. We didn't forget to leave the light burning, and his own fingerprints were on the cup and saucer.

We got away without a sound, picked up the car as arranged and reached home without incident.

There wasn't an inquest, or if there was it didn't get into any paper, and everything must have passed off quite smoothly, but we had an anxious few days all the same.
We were anxious, because I'd made one foolish mistake, as, criminals so often do. On the face of it it was trifling, but, even so, it ought to have rotted up the whole of our good work.

I'd come away with Heacham's latchkey in my overcoat pocket.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Good evening, everyone!

A J Alan was the pseudonym of Leslie Harrison Lambert, a Foreign Office official, amateur magician, former Royal Navy officer and cryptographer in Hut 8 (the Enigma team) at Bletchley Park. Phew. Well, why did he need a pseudonym, you'd like to know, and the answer to that is that he made occasional broadcasts on the wireless in the '20s and '30s, spinning tall tales that he wrote himself and pasted onto large squares of cardboard so as not to disturb the audience with the sound of rustling pages. Lambert - that is, Alan - always turned up at the BBC in full evening dress, and with his own candle and matches as contingency in the event of a studio light failing.

Now the reason I'm telling you all this is that I was introduced to Mr Alan's - I mean, Mr Lambert's - stories many years ago by my friend William Burton, who was read them by his housemaster at school who might very well have been one of Alan's original listeners. The stories made a strong impression on me. They are shaggy dog tales for the most part, often but not always steering away at the last moment from anything as vulgar as mere plot resolution. Some have a delicate touch of the supernatural about them, though only in the way a chap might tell you about an actual spooky experience, nothing so overtly supernatural as in an M R James tale. In the most part the stories are very effective at doing just what the storyteller intended, namely letting you pass an agreeable half-hour in the company of an amusing raconteur who's spinning an elegant verbal picture of how he went gadding about on various outré and/or outrageous adventures. All of them are charming and whimsical, and definitely took their place along Dunsany's tales of Jorkens as a big influence on Mirabilis.

Anyway, I recently noticed that A J Alan breathed his last in a Norfolk guest house seventy years ago. Which I'm sure was quite a tragedy, especially for Mrs Alan (well, Mrs Lambert, of course, is who I mean) who followed her husband soon after, poor woman. But time heals all wounds, and the silver lining in this case is that A J Alan's stories are now in the public domain. We talked a bit about publishing rights yesterday - well, here's a fine body of work in which everybody has publishing rights. It no longer need languish, secured by the strangling chain of copyright. Now the A J Alan oeuvre can enjoy a new lease of life.

Obviously it's too much to hope that the BBC would have kept the original recordings. These are the fellows who wiped Tomb of the Cybermen, after all. But possibly somebody at Broadcasting House will have the bright idea of getting Hugh Laurie or somebody to re-record the stories, if indeed they can still afford him. In the meantime, doing my bit, I shall bring you some of A J Alan's stories here, starting with "The 19 Club" tomorrow.