Constable and Toop; Me and Mr Jones

 I love it when I find myself immersed in the world of a book that I feel reluctant to leave. And when I reach that final page I feel exhilarated yet a little melancholy because I’ve got to say goodbye to some fabulous characters. Constable and Toop by Gareth P. Jones left me feeling exactly that way. Set in Victorian London it follows the fortunes of Sam Toop, a fourteen year old living and working with his father in a funeral parlour, and Lapsewood (deceased), a quill pushing clerk who works in the Dispatch Department of the Bureau. Sam has an unusal talent; he’s a “talker.” That is, he talks to ghosts. They seek him out and unburden their miseries on him or ask for his help in contacting the living. However, it is a gift that Sam would rather live without preferring to lead a quiet life. Much like Lapsewood, who loves his predictable and structured life, or should that be death, sorting and filing paperwork to keep the world of ghosts in order. But through a series of ghoulish, wicked and often bloody events both find themselves drawn into an adventure to save London’s ghosts. Above all, this is a very witty tale, crammed with a huge cast of well written characters that move the story along at a cracking pace. Ooh, and there are dogs in it…and you know how much I love dogs.

Ghostly sketch of Gareth

So it was with great delight that I went along to Seven Stories to meet Gareth P.Jones himself who’d popped by the museum as part of his promotional Ghost Tour 2012.  Looking every inch the dapper Victorian, dressed as he was in a three-piece suit complete with top hat, he entertained the group reading an interactive Gothic Ghost story. Set in Highgate Cemetary Mr Jones introduced us to Helly Hoxton and a ghost chicken, pausing periodically to ask the audience what should Helly do next? The children in the group eagerly discussed the character’s dilemmas and then voted on which action Helly should take. Just like Constable and Toop, the story had twists and turns and comic moments giving a wonderful flavour of the novel for those who had yet to read it. Mr Jones then picked up his ukulele (as well as being an award winning novelist he has mastered a variety of stringed instruments) and taught us the chorus to the Constable and Toop song. He likes to write songs for all his books and we enjoyed singing along. A Q & A session revealed he started writing short stories at secondary school,  after university wrote a novel and a children’s story that were never published but found success with The Dragon Detective Agency. And his advice to aspiring writers? Learn to take critisism….especially from your wife! We finished off with some more singing, this time The Meercat Rap inspired by Mr Jones’s Ninja Meercat series, which involved alot of Kung Foo “hi-ya’s” and clapping. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and joined everybody down in the fantastic Seven Stories bookshop to get my copy of Constable and Toop signed.

You can find out what Gareth thought about Seven Stories and his trip “Up North” here.

Well, it wouldn’t be a Ziggy Shortcrust post without an elf, and the very lovely and charming Mr Jones gave me permission to create his “elfter ego.”

I would highly recommend this novel, be you teen or adult. And if you can purchase it in an independent bookshop so much the better.

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Christmas Ghost Story

I was directed from a tweet by @GothicHeroine to this article by Muriel Grey. The demise of the Christmas ghost story is saddening so I thought I would redress the issue.

The following scribble is inspired by a ghostly encounter experienced by Dr Anne Ross. It appears in one of my favourite books; Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain published in 1973 by Readers Digest.

A courier appears at the door of my house with a crate that should have been delivered to the museum where I work. A draught of cold, early morning December air snakes past my pyjama clad legs. I attempt to persuade him to redirect the box, but, a jobsworth to the core he declines. I scrawl my signature on his etch-a-sketch pad as he unceremoniously dumps the container into the hall and almost runs down my drive to his van. Closing the door I crouch down next to the box. Measuring around 20 inches square by about 10 deep I slide my fingers under the base to test the weight; heavy, but no more than I expect.

Can I move it? Desperate to view the contents I figure I can cradle it in my arms and carry it as far as my study without breaking my back. I stagger down the hall and with a twist of my hips whack open the unlatched door to my room and drop the box on my desk.

Straightening up I push my hands through my hair and sigh deeply. Inexplicably I feel nervous and agitated. I should be opening this alongside my assistant in the sterile environment of the lab at the museum. Not in my home, in my jim jams. Oh for gods sake, woman, open the box. I fumble around in the drawer for a pair of scissors and as I open them wide to score the parcel tape a gust of wind howls around the house. So sudden is the sound that I pause to listen.  Glancing out the window I watch the leafless limbs of the silver birch bend in the wintery blast. I shiver and lay down the scissors. I decide to shower and dress.

Thirty minutes later, with the comforting banter from the radio, I enter my study once more. Leaving the door open to allow warm air to permeate the unusual chill of the room I resume the task of opening the box. The blade of the scissors cuts through the taped package with ease and I pull open the flaps of the crate. I push my hands into the dozens of Wotsit shaped polystyrene packing pieces and ease them, squeaking, out of the container onto the desk. Lifting a layer of paper dockets reveals corrugated card and acid free tissue.  Beneath that there they are.

Two carved stone heads, excavated from a garden close toHadrian’s Wall. They are both quite weather worn, the one on the right in particular, but even so I see coils of hair or horn artfully etched into the sides of each head. Perhaps they represent Cernunnos, the Celtic hunting god. I can’t resist and I trace my fingers along the features. There is nothing unpleasant about the faces and yet they disturb me.

Without warning an appalling howl from the room above almost causes my bladder to release its contents. I grip my arms tightly about myself and stare at the ceiling. I am dimly aware that the radio has fallen silent.  Leaving my study I proceed to climb the stairs fascinated by the fact that I can’t stop myself from doing so.

I walk along the landing and into the spare room from which I thought the scream had come from. Nobody is there.

BANG

The door slams shut behind me. I spin round letting out a stream of expletives and lunge for the door handle. There is no means of locking the door yet it holds fast. Horrifyingly I hear grunts and bovine like breathing coming from the other side. What the hell is in the house with me?

The door is released and I stagger backward. Recovering my balance I run out onto the landing and see a tall figure dark and indistinct making for the stairs. Bellowing like a beast it rushes down the stair case and vaults over the banisters. For all its size it lands in the corridor with a soft thud and turns down the hall to the kitchen. I almost slide off the treads as I race down after the creature listening to its claws clattering on the tiled floor. I am too terrified to venture any further and cling to the final stair post. All at once the radio bursts into life and I sense the intruder has fled.

The Celts believe that the severed heads of their enemies hold magical properties and bestow the same powers upon carved stone heads just like the ones sitting in my study.  Perhaps their job was to act as guardians outside a shrine to some god long since abandoned and now departed.

Departed?

I think not.