Three minute fiction: puppets

(For over ten years, Ellen de Vries and I have run Not for the Faint-Hearted, a workshop where people have three minutes to write a story prompted by a picture. This is a story I wrote in a recent session, lightly edited)


As a child, Ella was terrified of the puppets. They covered every wall of the room, meaning whichever way she looked, some were behind her. She tried to memorise the position of their limbs, to know if they’d moved since she last turned around.

One night she woke with a puppet in her bed. Her mother forced her brother to admit he’d put it there. Sobbing, the next day, he told her the truth – he was too scared to even touch those things.

John le Carré Bucket List Part 1: Call for the Dead

I’m not very good at bucket lists. I imagine other people’s ones are stuffed full of parachutes, tightropes and racetracks. Mine has several mundane things among the ambitious goals. These include reading all the novels of Iain M Banks and John LeCarré. As Douglas Coupland once wrote, “There’s a lot to be said for having a small manageable dream.

Having a simple goal on my bucket list means I can easily work towards completing it, and this week I started on Le Carré’s complete works. I first got into his books while I was a teenager, mainly through the famous novels – the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and the Karla trilogy. I loved the weary cynicism of the books, and how they felt like they were plotted backwards; they started with a climactic event, then followed the after-effects.

After the cold war, people speculated that Le Carré’s work would suffer. Instead his books have focused on often-forgotten, ongoing aspects of espionage. For example, Our Kind of Traitor examined accusations that financial institutions laundered illegal money during the financial crisis when little money was available to loan. I’ve missed several of the later books, so reading the full set is a chance to fill in the gaps. It’s also an opportunity to approach some books I’ve loved as a different person.

Le Carré’s first book is set in a very different world. Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, just 16 years after World War 2 and the Holocaust. It’s set in a very different Britain. London is still a working city rather than the shiny thing it has become; the Beatles are in Hamburg, yet to sign to Decca, the Swinging Sixties some time off. It’s not a state of the nation book, but the country it describes does feel very different.

The book opens with a description of George Smiley: “When Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley towards the end of the war she described him to her astonished Mayfair friends as breathtakingly ordinary.” Smiley has an uncharismatic appearance, and is often compared to animals, “His appearance seemed to reflect this discomfort in a kind of physical recession which made him more hunched and frog-like than ever. He blinked more, and acquired the nickname of ‘Mole’.” He’s a friendly, competent and loyal chap, but strangers often dislike him, “a little fat man, rather gloomy” as one sees him.

Smiley was an academic, and approaches his intelligence work in that style. He was recruited from Oxford, and knew by sight half of his interview panel for the ‘Overseas Committee for Academic research’. He had a distinguished wartime career, running agents in Nazi Germany, although the book’s brief description on this time focuses on fear and not bravery: “He had never guessed it was possible to be frightened for so long“. The new threat of Russia has left him on the shelf, and the collegiate, academic version of his days in the service is gone: “the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead is a murder mystery. Smiley undertakes the routine interrogation of Samuel Fennan, a Foreign Office worker. The interview is friendly and positive, but the next day Fennan kills himself, saying his career is ruined. Smiley is sent to speak to the widow Elsa, to see if he can work out what happened. While at the house the phone rings; thinking the call is for him, he takes it – a reminder from the local exchange, which had been placed by Fennan before he took his life. This leads Smiley to question the death, slowly unravelling something more complicated than a suicide.

The book describes the contradictions of Smiley’s role in a bureaucracy, “the unreality of containing a human tragedy in a three-page report“. At one point Elsa attacks him for the way the establishment drops bombs but “don’t come down here and look at the blood, or hear the scream“. She is unaware of the pitiful fear in which Smiley spent the war, and he won’t tell her any different. He struggles to maintain a core of humanity while, as Elsa puts it, “the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment“.

The book is interesting but didn’t quite feel like a Le Carré book. While Smiley spends a lot of time away from the action in a hospital bed, he does encounter a mysterious assailant. Despite some beautiful passages, the writing is clumsy in places – Smiley sinks into unconsciousness to end scenes, and the plot is dumped on the reader in an explanation near the end. But Call for the Dead did include one of my favourite tropes of spy novels – the interview with Fennan was conducted in a park while feeding the ducks.I had a sense of deja-vu as I read, the bleak London seeming familiar. It turns out that I read it back in 2011. I’m not sure it justifies reading twice and I might not have finished it, were it not the first book in the series.

Next up: A Murder of Quality, which I’m fairly sure I’ve not read before. It sounds like another mystery, but let’s see how it goes. I know there are some great books to come, so I can be patient.

The Ridgeway Days 3 and 4

Something I’ve experienced in both hiking and tourism is that the most incredible places seem unappealing when you’re tired. By three o’clock on a long day, a diversion that would seem exciting most other times is just too much trouble.

This leg featured amazing sights that were hurried through and hurried past so as not to extend the day; including the Uffington Horse, one of the most incredible landscapes I’ve ever visited.

The Uffington Horse was one of the highlights of the trip, but it is probably best not encountered towards the end of a long day travelling. The landscape nearby, shown below, is stunning. The small hill with a bare patch is where St George fought the dragon. This is proved by the exposed chalk on the place where the dragon bled out: nothing has grown there since. One of the downsides of this route is that the view of the horse from the hilltop is not the best. But we were too tired for any diversion. Hiking is a good way of seeing landscapes, but not so good for visiting particular things.

I briefly ducked below the fence to place my hand on the chalk.

We made time for a couple of places, Wayland Smithy and a huge fort, because they were right on the path, and perfectly timed for a long break.

One of the great things about this walk was meeting some interesting people. In a valley we met someone flying a drone. He was taking thousands of photos that could then be used in making CGI models for an upcoming Hollywood film (he told us what it was, but said he wasn’t supposed to).

As Summer fades, it’s harder to summon the memories of the ferocious heat. The weather continued to brutal, meaning hats, sun-cream and lots of water. On day 4 we had the last water-stop 5-7 miles from the end. I’m so used to taking water for granted, particularly on hikes around the Sussex Downs.

We also had a water-stop near a beautiful mansion. The gardener stopped to talk and showed us to the taps. There were peacocks in the grounds, and he explained how he had to hunt for the eggs. He told us that passers-by would often ask who the house belonged to, but he would never say. I wanted to ask as well, but forced myself not to. We were told to check out the roses as we passed them; they were indeed impressive.

On the hilltop, sunny day, we passed some abandoned kit on a monument. It was only some time later I realised someone had just left it there for a run to save carrying it around.

While the curry houses on the North Downs Way have been nothing special, I loved the ones along the Ridgeway. We went to a couple that were under new management (judging by their reputation, the previous owners had run them into the ground). They were both now excellent, despite seeming to be in the middle of nowhere. I wonder why some areas have much better Indian Restaurants than others?

On this section, we passed the halfway point. Signs showing the full distance travelled are always encouraging.