The Jason Stories

A buzzer sounded. We all stood. Quietly, we moved from our circle of chairs and made for the doorway leading out to the narrow staircase and down to the church below. There were about twenty, the Choirmaster and myself. The youngest boy was seven years old, the oldest thirteen. Each of us was dressed in a dark blue cassock and white surplice. The Choirmaster led the way, and I followed at the rear.

I had been reading a story to them. Below us, in the big redbrick church building, the Vicar was coming to the end of his Sunday morning sermon. The buzzer had been operated by the Organist, informing us that it was time for us prepare for processing into the church and the choirstalls, ready to lead the rest of the congregation in song.

The story was mine. I had never tried writing fiction before. Two weeks or so earlier, shortly before the Harvest season, the Choirmaster had booked me to take a turn as ‘guest speaker’ in these weekly gathering of the boys and I had wondered how I would do it. I decided to tell a story about Harvest and its meaning. The characters became a boy called Jason and his three school friends; the youngest of these, Cedric, was the terror of the village and the three friends agreed that his chief job seemed to be to annoy them. In fact, he often meant well but things just went wrong. The story had a fleeting message within it that I hoped would help the boys understand something of the Christian faith. As I read it on this Sunday morning the circle of thirty-odd boys was utterly silent and motionless. Were they interested or or just polite?

It seemed it was interest, because I heard they had asked for another story. St Cecilia’s Day was approaching so I wrote one called ‘The Musical Saint’. After that they wanted another, and slowly I covered the whole church year. It came to an end after the fourteenth, when Sunday mornings began to be organised differently.

Later, I was helping in the production of a BBC Radio London programme for children called The Orange and Lemon Club. A weekly story was wanted and Jason seemed to fill the requirements. The weekly story had to be recorded and sent up to the London studio so every now and then I had to ask for 20 minutes of silence in the house while I read to my tape recorder. Gradually the stories gained favour around London and eventually I decided to see if a publisher might be interested. The Canterbury Press, Norwich, were brave enough to give it an airing and, to my pride and joy, said Yes, please. The stories had begun in the 1970s. The book came out in 1990 and it sold.

I Googled the Jason title the other day and a sad one or two looked out at me. I fell to wondering if it would attract an audience among the children of church-going parents today. If I re-wrote it, bringing the characters and their ways into the current scene, would it it stand a chance? I shall think about it.

Do you think it might?


Getting out, getting in

Morris 8 c1955

It was our first car. The picture, Merry Hill Road, Bushey, shows the previous owner, a close friend, emerging from it shortly before I bought it. It was some months later when I took the risky step of offering my ageing parents a ride. My mother was even more nervous than I and my father, who had never himself driven, firmly cautious on my behalf. The project was prickling with peril.

We started from their Devonshire cottage and headed through narrow serpentine lanes to the coast. I forget where. The road suddenly narrowed and I slowed. Ahead, it dipped out of sight, the final hill down to the seashore. I saw the dangers and said I was going to park the car by the stone wall in the tiny lay-by just ahead and we would walk down.

First, I eliminated the risk of having to turn the car round after others had parked; I turned it then and there. The driver’s door was now very close to the wall and I injected a little innocent drama into the situation by pointing out that, because of our close proximity to the wall I would be very clever and, like themselves, exit from the passenger door. (This model of the Morris 8 had only a single door on each side.)

We walked down. The day was of that of utter perfection, gentle breezes and all. We had a cream tea. My mother said again and again that it was all so lovely, my father rolled up his trouser legs and took off his socks and, gingerly over the pebbles, walked stiffly into the water, ankle-deep.

It was all over. We were approaching the car. No-one else had parked. At the passenger door, the key in my hand, I stopped. The brain was spinning with two problems: first, how was I going to tell them that we were locked out, and, second, how were we were going to get in. I had failed to notice that the passenger door on this model did not have a keyhole.

There were no cries of dismay, nothing beyond my mother’s quiet remark that she was longing to sit down and my father’s tut-tutting. His style of the tut-tut resembled the sound of a lusty baby at its mother’s breast. It was followed by ‘What are you doing?’ I was giving my jacket to my mother and edging sideways along the tight gap between car and stone wall with the stonework snatching at my shirt. I slid the key into the lock, undid the door and opened it the few inches until it touched the wall. I inserted my head and shoulders. From then onward it was a lengthy matter of inching from outside to inside. Halfway, I found myself stuck, unable to move either forward or back. I think it must have been the closest I ever came to panicking. I tried to concentrate on sensing the slight actual motion at each twisting of the trunk and urging of the waist, each grunt. Finally, there came a little plop! of freedom and, sweating somewhat, I reached and lifted the locking device on the passenger door and pushed it open. I lifted the front passenger seat forward on its hinges to make  the rear seat available and croaked at my father, ‘OK. Hop in!’ With the front seat returned to its normal position I managed what I hoped was a winsome smile up at my mother, and beckoned.

Driving back, there were cockney-style jests from my father such as ‘no more of that malarky, my lad!’ and, from behind, my mother’s occasional and gentle murmuring of ‘Oh, do take care, won’t you’ and so on. Waving goodbye to them as they waved from their front gate I was a sober and far wiser young man.

The Organ and its Pipes

My wife and I were working at the Ludhiana Christian Medical College and Hospital in the early 1960s. In the college chapel there is an organ with an unfortunate history. It was donated by the authorities of the Vice-Regal Palace chapel up in Simla shortly after Independence was declared in August, 1947.  It was a very fine instrument with about nine hundred pipes: naturally, its removal involved total dismantlement, the pipes being removed one by one and the identity of each one carefully marked on it in ink. They, with all the other parts, were loaded onto a heavy vehicle, covered with tarpaulin and driven from Simla to Ludhiana.

It was the monsoon season and upon unloading the vehicle it was found that the heavy rain had penetrated the covering. The full significance of this dawned on the installer only when he picked up the first of the 900 pipes and looked for the ink markings. He found nothing. He had no idea where it should go. The reason: whoever had done the marking job had not used a waterproof ink. The leaking covering had meant that none of the pipes escaped the rain. A determined effort was made to find a way of making the instrument produce helpful sounds of some kind. The result was a little disconcerting but, all things considered, it was a noble effort. Barbara was asked to take on the post of Organist. After her first service she said that the experience was ‘interesting’.

But, had you been in the position of that poor installer, what would you have done? Answers on LinkedIn, please! Or here if you wish.

Shorts story

Somebody’s Facebook entry today has reminded me of a tragic personal tale. I was coming home to England on the Capetown Castle after my two years with the RAF in India. A few of us were in the habit of sitting on the ship’s rail and chatting, wearing the usual shipboard uniform of a pair of shorts. They had very short legs, as it was the custom to signal one’s status as an old hand by getting the village tailor to shorten them considerably. One day as lunchtime was approaching we were sunning ourselves there, waiting for the bell to go off. Opposite us was a row of elderly ladies in deck chairs.

A ship’s wooden rail is beautifully wide and gently rounded, perfect for a young man’s bottom. However, at intervals along its length it has small pronged objects called cleats: sailors use them for securing thin lines when they haul mail and other packages up from the quay or from small boats alongside. Without realising it I had placed myself close beside one of these cleats and a prong had found its way into one leg of my shorts. The bell sounded for lunch and we all leaped down. There was a ripping noise from behind me and the elderly ladies were left gaping at the  rear end of a youth running past wearing a tattered miniskirt. The sound of their little chorus of ‘Oooh!’ is with me still.

The Water Poem

Me, I’m a versifier. Give me a subject, any subject within reason, and I’ll write a bit of verse for you that rhymes, has a definite beat and, after you’ve read it, leaves you with something to ponder on. There are limitations, of course. First, I need to know something about the subject. I need time. I need time to think about it, obviously. Then I need time to start getting something on paper or, in my own case, screen.

I need time to get rid of the lot and start again. And when I have finished it for a second time I need time to show it to someone not involved to see how it strikes them. I then need time to start again.

Sometimes, the request is easily met and flowers are strewn in my path. Sometimes I get a blinder that sends me rushing to my room and my comfort blanket and drawing the curtains.

Once, this did happen. Not the comfort blanket bit but certainly the rushing to a small room – I forget which one. The chap on the phone said actually he not only wanted the poem to be on a specific subject, he had to have it by the following weekend.

The specific subject was water. The chap – just one chap – who wanted it was the Speaker for the Sunday service at a rather well-known church, and his subject was Water. And he wanted it to be in the form of a hymn. He wanted words for singing. For singing by the church congregation and the Choir. And set to some already well-known tune.

I could not swear to it but I daresay I slept fitfully that night. And the next. I bubbled and possibly squeaked and was very hard to get on with for several days. Draft followed draft. But I made it; I not only made it but also received a very nice note of thanks from the Speaker.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am preparing you for one day a little while from now when I shall be able to tell you about a brief given to me for a hymn on a subject so utterly un-hymnlike, so foreign to any church congregation anywhere in any kind of church that you can think of, that you will scarcely believe me.

Watch out.