THE ORPHAN SCRIVENER -- ISSUE # NINETY-ONE -- 15 FEBRUARY 2015

Some have claimed if you wait long enough whatever it is that's bothering you will go away. Well, popular wisdom has definitely fallen down on the ice on this one, since like the rest of the east coast and New England we're still waiting for the snow and record cold to depart. Shakespeare was right to declare when the storm is up all's on the hazard! Fortunately for mailmen none must hazard storms or terrible cold to deliver this newsletter...


MARY'S BIT or OIL DROPS KEPT FALLING ON THEIR HEADS

Subscribers will recall that as the Narnia books begin a permanent winter shrouds that land, so it is always snowing and never Christmas. And many will sigh and say alas, it's the same hereabouts, just as it has been at Casa Maywrite for past few weeks.

The advent of built-in closets has robbed many youngsters of attempts to seek Narnia by looking in their wardrobes. I surely cannot be the only young reader who occasionally undertook the quest and a favourite place to seek the forest where the lamp-post stood involved a particular Reed wardrobe. It was fitted with a drawer across the bottom and a mirrored door in the middle of the upper part, in all a heavy piece of furniture constructed of a dark wood, possibly mahogany. Many a time leaning the upper part of my body in and twisting awkwardly I could have sworn if I was only able to reach just a little further to one side or the other my hand would be brushed by branches and the light touch of snowflakes and I'd see lamplight filtering through the clothing hanging on the rail.

Narnia's lamp-post was familiar to us because they were still on the streets and functioning in our childhood. One was located not that far from our front door in Newcastle, of the type with a ladder arm extending from one side of the post. Our utilisation of this bar in tandem with a skippy rope pointed up a difference between genders. For girls generally threw the rope over the bar and knotted the ends together to form a swing, while boys would tend to use it to swing round the lamp-post, ululating in imitation of Tarzan.

At the time our maisonette, as with others in this street of Victorian terraced houses, had no electricity. It was eventually wired, but even afterward there remained a working gas light in our attic bedroom for which the filmy mantles, so fragile they more or less disintegrated if you so much as looked at them cross-eyed, were sold in the corner shop.

We weren't old enough to remember lamplighters as memorialised in Stevenson's wistful poem about a sick child's plan, when he grew stronger, to accompany local lamplighter Leerie on his rounds. But lamplighting was an occupation inevitably overtaken by advancing technology, and it was the same for the previous band of lamplighters whose public charges ran on oil. Theirs must have been a tedious job, what with daytime tasks of shinning up their ladder to trim wicks, clean and polish the lamp, and see to its fuel, and then come back again at dusk to light it. By our time street gas-lamps were self-igniting.

With the newfangled gas lamps, however, there was an advantage for the public: lamplighters no longer had any opportunity to dribble oil on the bonnets and hats of passing pedestrians, as mentioned in a short piece by Dickens. The arrival of gas-lamps outraged his naughty oil dribbling lamplighter, who protested any low fellow could light a gas-lamp. Their introduction was a death-blow to the country, he declared, not to mention a plot by radicals bent on destroying the oil and cotton trades, presumably referring to the cotton waste he used to clean the lamps. Ultimately he was so affected by the change-over he became deranged and hanged himself on a lamp iron, one of those projections from which some lamps were hung and which were used as makeshift gallows as described in A Tale of Two Cities by the same author.

However, lamplighters lived on in popular culture for a time at least via references to their proverbial swiftness of foot. I deduced this to be so (you know my methods, Watson) from nods to this talent in a couple of older novels. The first was in R. Austin Freeman's The Moabite Cipher, a Doctor Thorndyke story in which an inspector asks a reporter if a third character departing the scene seemed to hurry: "Rather," replied the reporter. "As soon as you were inside he went off like a lamplighter. You won't catch him now."

Then there was Sheridan Le Fanu's Mr Justice Harbottle, in which a character strikes someone on the head with a heavy instrument and "...leaving him bleeding and senseless in the gutter, ran like a lamp-lighter down a lane to the right, and was gone."

Our modern slang expression lighting out, meaning a swift departure, is doubtless the phrase's descendant, although sadly, with the demolition of our street decades ago, the light of our friendly gas-lamp has been out for a long time.


NECESSARY EVIL or THE BSP TICKER

It has been a quiet period since we last darkened subscribers' in-boxes, but there's a little news and here it is.

A NOTABLE ANNIVERSARY or FIVE FOR JOY (WE HOPE)

This issue marks the 15th year to the day since the publication of the debut issue of Orphan Scrivener. Returning to 2000 and consulting the dusty archive shelves, we see at the time we were writing Two For Joy. Therefore to mark today's auspicious date and by kind permission of the press we're giving away a copy of Twofer or any other of the Lord Chamberlain novels chosen by the first five subscribers who request one. It'll be sent as a pdf via email, so you won't need an e-reader. No strings stream out behind it -- review your chosen title or not, we'll leave that up to you.

SAILING AWAY or NEWS OF MURDER IN MEGARA

We recently received word Murder In Megara has entered the production process, meaning it's trundled safely down the slipway and is on its voyage downriver to sail out into the world. Publication date is October 2015 and a description of John's latest adventure, in which he must investigate alone while under suspicion of murder, can be found in the official blurb at http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/murder-megara/ The cover illustration has also been chosen and by coincidence one of its components is an animal whose name is the surname of one of the authors, spelt backwards. Can conspiracy theories be far behind?

THE PPP BLOG-O-RAMA or JUST A REMINDER

Subscribers may care to check the Poisoned Pen Press multi-author blog for musings on all manner of topics by numerous PPP authors. Contributions, including Mary's on each 18th of the month, are linked from PPP's news page at http://www.poisonedpenpress.com/category/news-and-blog/ Why not give it a whirl?


ERIC'S BIT or UPDIKE AND ME

It's been many years since I tried my hand at writing any sort of fiction except mysteries, but my reading remains eclectic as ever.

Even in my teens, when I gorged on science fiction and fantasy, I found time to read the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, John Steinbeck, and John Updike. Not much of the latter, to be honest. The collection Pigeon Feathers defeated me immediately.

Decades later, no longer a teenager, I've been reading Updike again: his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair; Self-Consciousness: Memoirs; his early short stories set in a fictional town in Pennsylvania, the state I'm from. My reaction has been much more positive.

It may be his perfect descriptions of familiar landscapes that appeal to my sympathies and make me see similarities -- probably erroneously -- between the two of us, the bestselling author and the author who is...well, let's be kind...not bestselling. He describes the brown Pennsylvania countryside (and it is brown for much more of the year than it is green) of empty fields and weathered barns with the detailed exactitude of fellow Pennsylvanian Andrew Wyeth. I grew up with that stark and subdued image of my environment. My attempts at watercolor were all burnt umber and burnt sienna beneath skies awash in Payne's gray. Until I left home I insisted on somber clothes, dull earthen colors, gray, nothing brighter than dark blue. My tastes reflected my state of mind and perhaps too a subliminal desire to blend in with my surroundings, to avoid drawing attention.

I was shy, awkward, obsessed with books and writing, all characteristics I shared with the young Updike, to hear him tell it in his memoirs. Both our fathers taught school so we both knew the borderline poverty, as it seemed in that affluent era, that accompanied the teaching profession up until the late sixties. There is, in The Centaur, a chapter recounting a winter-morning drive that captures so perfectly the tribulations of navigating hilly, snow-covered Pennsylvania secondary highways in an old and unreliable vehicle, it might have been downloaded straight from my own brain. Presuming that my brain had actually stored the detailed memories Updike's had.

Unfortunately I am no John Updike. Despite our similar disabilities he was writing for the New Yorker by his early twenties, whereas by my early twenties -- years later -- I was reading essays by his Talk of the Town predecessor E.B.White (who hired Updike) and writing a column for the local weekly newspaper.

After that the gap between Updike and me widened.

It did occur to me, as it must have to him, that a fine crop of writing could be grown in the compost of one's childhood. But inspired by the great New Yorker essayists, I used that material for essays of the kind you see here in the Orphan Scrivener. Had I possessed Updike's talent and insight I might have transmuted my experiences into fiction instead.

What irks me about my teenaged obtuseness is that it deprived me of following Updike's output, year by year, story by story, book by book. He's gone now and his oeuvre is finished. There will be nothing new to look forward to or be surprised (or disappointed) by.

I haven't reached his mid-sixties writing yet, when his settings and themes took a major turn. Maybe I will continue on with my reading or maybe I will just leave him back when we were both young.


AND FINALLY

Bertrand Russell advised people not to feel certain of anything. One thing we may be certain about, however, is there won't be much revelry on April 15th. For it's not only Income Tax Return Day in the US but also Return of Orphan Scrivener Day, when the next issue will swoop in at lamplighter speed to darken your email in-box.

See you then!
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, to be found hanging out on the virtual washing line that is the Web at http://home.earthlink.net/~maywrite/ There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, our bibliography, the Doom Cat interactive game written by Eric, and our growing libraries of links to free e-texts of classic and Golden Age mysteries, ghost stories, and tales of the supernatural. There's also the Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to visit Eric's blog at http://www.journalscape.com/ericmayer/ or perhaps pop over to our shadow identity M. E. Mayer's blog (largely devoted to reviews of Golden Age mysteries) at http://memayer.blogspot.com/ And just for the heck of it, we'll also mention our noms des Twitter are @marymaywrite and @groggytales Drop in some time!


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