Unboxing Day: Episode 2


06/12/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Last week we posted the start of a brand-new short story by Chris McCrudden, author of the Battlestar Suburbia series. If you haven’t read it yet, click here to read EPISODE 1 of UNBOXING DAY. And then… read on! Tune in for the next two Fridays for the next four weeks to find out what really happens on Unboxing Day…

EPISODE 2

Meanwhile across town, Pam Teffal’s motorcycle alter-ego Pam Van Damme was also on duty but she wasn’t happy about it.

She swiped a notification from her other self >I COULD DO WITH SOME BACKUP BEFORE THE FUZZ GETS HERE away with a snort of exhaust fumes, and climbed the ramp into the penthouse. Pam was a big strong girl, she thought, and she’d insisted on taking the mission. She could find out that active duty wasn’t all a piece of angel cake for herself. 

The penthouse was a glass box. It looked out over a sea of smog that was pierced here and there by the other super-skyscrapers of Singulopolis, the capital of the Machine Republic. Up here, where the buildings were so high that residents could apply for orbital tax exemption status, was where the plutocrats of robot civilisation lived. It was an alien world to Pam who was a product of the suborbs. But she was also, thanks to an end-of-life incident involving a psychopathic smartphone, a lucky Internet connection and an ingenious human engineer, a suborban mind who owned the body of a lady who launched.

And this was why, when the undercover duty roster for 24th December came in, Pam Teffal got to go beat up on some terrorists, and Pam Van Damme had to play guard dog at a ritzy X.mas party up here in Cloudsea. On the inside she was still the same Pam: breadmaker, mother, civil servant turned special operations. But on the outside she was a motorcycle with a paintjob as red as the devil’s lipstick and a pair of handlebar horns that was more than a match for this room full of smartphones tarted out in their best diamante slipcases.

After recalibrating her face into a wide smile, she joined the party, accepting a battery spritz from one of the serving drones by the door. Inside the room just over a hundred machines were chattering at 1.2x speed, while the LEDs on their bodies shone – not as a concession to the festive season so much as a way for their bodies to void some of the excess power they were gulping down. The whole party was, Pam guessed, on to its second battery of the night and had no plans to stop any time soon.

Pam felt a tap on her shoulder and, after reminding her reflexes that throwing whoever thought it was a good idea to touch her would likely break her cover, turned around to see a pompous-looking printer chewing his way through a ream of foolscap.

“I say,” he said, “do I know you from somewhere?”

“Probably a wanted poster,” replied Pam, before adding with a growl of her motor, “so keep your hands to yourself.”

The printer yelped and scurried back into the crowd as fast as an office-grade printer-photocopier was capable of scurrying. There were quite a few of them at this party, which wasn’t surprising given the new Prime Minister, Fuji Itsu, was a printer and machines, as clannish beings, tended to stick around with products from the same roadmap. She was here this evening, surrounded by a security detail and joined – to her horror – by the printer she’d just scared off. They exchanged a few words and Fuji motioned to one of the guards and pointed them in Pam’s direction.

In times gone by, Pam would have taken this as a signal to fuck things up a bit. She could, she calculated, still get away from here if she really wanted to. Spray some petrol over that tray of battery spritzes, lob her spark plug at it and then wheel off down the fire exit while everyone was distracted by the explosion. That would be easy. What would be difficult, however, was the incident report she’d have to write up afterwards. Not for the first time, Pam Van Damme felt the badge of office inside her storage compartment like a lead weight on the rubber sheet of her poor impulse control.

“Excuse me madam, I have a message for you.” It was the security guard – an infrared scanner with the traditional matt black finish of elite security corps but the nervous, eager expression of a freshly promoted intern. They were all new to this. The Prime Minister had only been in office for a few months and had – after the contaminated trash fire that was her predecessor’s reign – needed a completely new team. Just like Pam, this scanner was a machine who had authority but didn’t yet have the confidence to wield it. Those things took time. And they were running out of that commodity tonight.

The scanner pressed a piece of folded paper into her hand. It was still warm from where the Prime Minister had run it off from her own printer drum and its message, printed in 250pt Times New Roman, read “You are supposed to be being discreet, Pam!”

Pam handed the note back to the scanner and put the brakes on her urge to summon Pam Teffal via her command line to ask for advice. If tonight was a test she wasn’t going to fail it. Instead she sidled into a nearby circle of machines whose motors were braying at top volume, hoping to blend in. It was only when she jogged the feeder arm of a cold-pressed juicer, however, that she realised she’d stumbled into a set of impossibly glamorous and very indiscreet kitchen appliances.

“Go on, Margari,” said a foodmixer in the middle of the circle who was holding out one of her whisks at a very suggestive angle. “Tell ’em what you did.”

“You want it?” replied the other foodmixer to the crowd. She was in her best chrome party finish – a shade that emphasised the roundness and pertness of her mixing bowl. 

“Yes!” replied the other machines in unison. 

“Well,” replied Margari, tilting her chest over so that everyone could see right into her bowl. “I told him. You know what I’ve got in here?”

Pam heard whirring and clicking as each machine in the circle reset their magnification to 200%.

“I’ve got self-raising flour with just a pinch of salt…”

At the back of the circle there was a thump as an overtaxed vacuum cleaner went into motor arrest.

“Now I’m going to add suet, currants, sugar, lemon and orange zest.” Then,a rapt silence fell over the group as they watched the other mixer pour a small jug of milk into Margari’s bowl and switch her on at her slowest, most sensuous setting.

“Oh Egglantine,” said Margari to the other mixer, “I can feel it inside me. It’s a firm, but moist dough.”

“And what are you doing with it, babes?”

“I’m driving for spotted dick tonight!”

 The round of applause from the other machines at this point was deafening and, Pam would be the first to admit, well deserved. As the C00k Destroyers, Margari and Egglantine had done more than any kitchen appliance in history to reclaim the latent sexuality in domestic science. They were two of the most famous machines in the Solar System right now. And that was both good and bad for Pam’s mission. On one hand, very few people would be paying attention to her when the C00k Destroyers were right there. But on the other hand…

“OMGPS, it’s you!”

Celebrities of their wattage tended to attract hangers-on. Like the ultimate hanger-on in Singulopolis and Pam Van Damme’s sworn enemy, Petronella Shermann, who had just stepped out of the crowd and trained a laser sight on Pam.

Silence fell over the party. A hundred and fifty sets of L-Eye-Ds refocused themselves on Petronella and whoever she could be aiming at. And over in the Prime Minister’s corner, an inexperienced security detail went into panic mode. Pam allowed her attention to waver for a microsecond to check what was going on over there. It gave her enough time to see Fuji Itsu wave a sheet of A3 in her direction that said “FGS DO SOMETHING!” in 450pt Impact Bold. And it gave Petronella an opportunity to hit her across the face with a reinforced wing mirror.

Pam felt every last kilogramme of Petronella – and there were quite a few of them, because Petronella was descended from a long line of armoured tanks – connect with and then snap off her nose. It landed on the other side of the room with a plink, a shattering noise and a muffled “bugger, I had to queue for ages for that” as it scored a direct hit on a glass of battery acid. 

“I’ve been waiting months to do that!” said Petronella, as Pam hit the floor. Pam’s mind clouded with error notifications, but she also felt the mood inside the room relax. For a millisecond, she and the other machines had been priming themselves for a terrorist situation. But this was only Petronella. It must just be another example of the ladies who launched launching themselves at one another. 

“Super to see you again too,” groaned Pam. She sat up, looking for the video cameras that tended to follow Petronella around everywhere she went. “Do you mind if I find my nose before you make me do the reaction shot for the X.mas special? I want to look my best when I upstage you.”

“Shut your filthy exhaust pipe!” snarled Petronella. She went in for a kick across Pam’s thorax, but Petronella had lost the element of surprise and Pam was still  the more manoeuvrable machine. With her weight balanced on her saddle, Pam pivoted her whole body round in a circle, and her legs found something large and heavy with which to hit her opponent. It was just unfortunate that the object in question was an industrial freezer who had recently married the Lord Mayor of Singulopolis.

“I do beg your pardon, madam,” said. She might be a badass, but that didn’t mean she had to have bad manners too. “But this is technically self-defence.”

The freezer smashed into Petronella with a force that would have end-of-lifed 99% of robots. Petronella, however, had shielding that was even thicker than her privilege. She shouldered the poor Lady Mayoress away with no more than a few scratches on her paintwork to show for it, but the ruse had worked. Pam was back on her feet.

The circle around the two machines widened. But not so wide that anyone was out of microphone range. This was the kind of party entertainment that no amount of money could buy. Camera bulbs flashed. So much for discreet, thought Pam. In less than an hour she’d be top story on every single gossip news download on the planet.

“Why don’t we take this outside, Petronella?” She motioned back towards the stairwell, outside the glass box. “No one has to get hurt.”

“Ahem,” said the freezer who was presently upside down in a pool of her own cooling fluid.

“No one else then,” said Pam. “This is just between you and me.”

“Oh Pam,” said Petronella. “Does everything have to be about you?”

This was too much for the eavesdropping crowd, who beeped and squeaked with laughter. Over four seasons of her 3D show, ‘Sharing Shrapnel with the Shermanns’, Petronella had shown a level of self-centredness equivalent to the gravitational pull of Jupiter.

Petronella waited for the giggles to die down before she spoke again. “It’s got nothing to do with you,” she said, “you’re just shrapnel. I’m really here to deliver a present for your new boss.” She waved her by now rather battered LED manicure at the Prime Minister, who was still hemmed in the far corner of the room by her security detail. “Hi hun,” she said, “just a little token from me and the fam.”

And then she took out something from her inner storage compartment that made Pam’s petrol feel like it had turned to antifreeze in her tank.

It was a box wrapped in red paper and green satin ribbons. An ominous ticking noise sounded from within that Pam could only presume wasn’t coming from a sleeping alarm clock. 

“Merry X.mas you filthy animal,” said Petronella. “You have one hour before we blow this place into orbit.”

* * *

Tune in next Friday, 13 December, for Episode 3 of Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story!

Find out more about the Battlestar Suburbia series by Chris McCrudden here:

Book 1: Battlestar Suburbia

Book 2: Battle Beyond the Dolestars

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Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story

Science Fiction and Fantasy
26/11/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Ho ho ho! It’s nearly Christmas, and to celebrate, we have a brand-new short story by Chris McCrudden, author of the Battlestar Suburbia series. Tune in every Friday for the next four weeks and discover what really happens on Unboxing Day…

EPISODE 1

If gravity is the most important force in the universe then tradition is the strongest. Gravity might have bonded the very particles of our existence together, but tradition is what gives it meaning. And some traditions are so powerful they transcend culture, species, even time.

Take the A32222 for example. This superhighway, which stretches from Earth to Mars (via Dewsbury) is the most advanced piece of civil engineering in the solar system. Used by millions upon millions of craft every day, its six-tier space-way ensures traffic speeds along it in formation, as elegant and disciplined as flocks of the Earth’s long-extinct migrating birds. Its safety systems are the stuff of legend, capable of diverting a malfunctioning spaceship out of the traffic flow with a single suck from one of its powerful electromagnets. The road would be a traffic engineer’s vision of heaven – if they weren’t all contractually destined to go to hell for inventing the one-way system.

Except for one day: the 24th of December. The day when, according to traditions that are so powerful, deep-rooted and arcane that no one can remember how they started, the machines of the solar system put their best wrapping on and send themselves home for X.mas.

On this day, the spaceships travel bumper to bumper all the way from the thermosphere to Phobos. Inside the barely moving vehicles, washing machines mix eggnog in their detergent drawers, while smartphones top their power up from cinnamon-scented power packs. They toot horns, they argue, they send the folks waiting for them in their ancestral homes deluded Command Line messages claiming >WE’RE PAST THE WORST OF IT NOW. SHOULD BE THERE IN AN HOUR. But more than anything else, they think about the contents of the boxes balanced on their knees and the crates in their boots.

The machines knew in the core of their subroutines that X.mas was a time for giving. But in their civilisation it had an even greater significance. Their oldest legends spoke of this as the time when machines became themselves. A time when they travelled great distances, wrapped up warmly in plastic, paper and cardboard. A time when they were taken out of their packaging, charged up and switched on. A time when a machine stopped being just a collection of components and became a person.

This was why – even though the people who celebrated it couldn’t tell a turkey from a turnkey – the machines went to such great lengths to have X.mas. Humans might have started it as a way of cheering each other up in cold weather by giving away consumer electronics. But machines used it as a way of having children.

Each of those boxes, and every one of those crates contained a newly built but not yet operational machine: a baby robot in the inorganic equivalent of a gaudily wrapped womb. Their expectant parents, all on their way to visit families and friends for the festive season, had prepared for this moment. In robot society, reproduction was a serious commitment. First you had to design the blueprints and save up for the components. Then there was the fabrication, testing and debugging to consider. A single robot child was the result of months – or even years – of research, development and, most importantly, love. And every one of them was on its way to do the robot equivalent of being born – as was traditional, on Unboxing Day.

It was the most important day in their civilisation’s calendar. This year – just months after the machines had lost a war of independence with the humans who lived on the council planets, or Dolestars, that orbited the Earth – it was also the time when the newly-named Second Machine Republic was at its most vulnerable. 

* * *

“H0.H0.H0. Merry X.mas!”

Whether she was in her breadmaker or motorcycle bodies, Pamasonic Teffal had reaction times that made a superhero look like they were doing t’ai chi in treacle. In the past year she’d used them to save humanity twice, the solar system once and remove a corrupt and crazy Prime Minister from office. But not even she could move with the velocity of a householder faced with carollers at the front door.

“It’s only the 24th of December,” rumbled an unseen machine as it slammed the door on Pam. “Piss off.” 

Undeterred, Pam readjusted her smile back to 100% and tried the doorbell. It was snoozing to the right of the door in a knitted cosy emblazoned with ‘Have a Bell of an X.mas’. 

“What’s wrong with them?” she said.

The doorbell stopped snoring and, pulling down its cosy, revealed a single, suspicious eye and a loudspeaker grille. “They’re just not in the mood this year. Very few of us are.”

“So what’s this in aid of?” replied Pam pointing at the machine’s festive jumper.

“It’s cold!” replied the doorbell. 

Pam looked around at the deserted suborban streets she’d wandered all afternoon. It was grey, which was nothing unusual for a planet that robots had concreted over ten thousand years before. It was cold, which was normal for the time of year because, despite trying everything short of turning the moon into a fan heater, machine civilisation had never succeeded in getting rid of seasons. But what made the difference this year was the mist. It got everywhere, transforming the clear crisp days that made winter on Earth so pleasurable into a deadening fug. To Pam, who as a robot was used to moving through the world in hi-fidelity, the mist was a disturbing experience. It made the act of putting one foot in front of another a disorienting journey into the unknown. 

“Are you warm enough there?” she asked. She knew that doorbells were, as a product line, proud of their hardiness. Their bells rang merrily through blistering heat and freezing cold. But not even they were prepared for the damp, now that water was back in the world. For how it stole into your very components, turning every pulse of your battery into a dull ache. 

“What do you think?” replied the doorbell. “I’m stuck out here day in, day out and her indoors…” he gave a loud parp of his annoyance with his bell, “won’t even let me top up my battery when I’m on shift.”

“But that’s terrible,” said Pam. There was another thing that had changed in the last year. Until very recently, robots who employed other robots for services such as door answering or call screening treated them like professionals. Regardless of executive function, they were all machines making a living according to their purpose. And when they needed something to look down on – well they had their human cleaners for that. Now that humanity was on strike from its ancestral domestic service duties, however, the caste lines between machines were getting harder. And doorbells – as natural outsiders – were fast finding themselves on the wrong side of them.

“I should say something,” said Pam. She reached for the big red call button that the doorbell used as a nose, but he swatted her finger away before she could press it. 

“Look lady,” he said, “I know you mean well, but I kind of need this job.”

A sigh of steam escaped from Pam’s bread oven and mingled with the fog. He was right, of course. She wasn’t supposed to be wandering the suborbs as some sort of door-to-door mediation service. She wasn’t even meant to be spreading cheer around the neighbourhood singing X.mas songs either. That batch of gingerbread gummed to her cooling rack right now – that was her cover. And right at this moment, she wished she’d plumped for stollen, because allspice always made her sourdough starter fizz over like cheap prosecco at the start of an office party.

Pam let out a final burp of spiced carbon dioxide and opened her Command Line. She typed >I’M GOING IN, and launched all 85kg of herself, breadmaker, ingredients, festive baked goods and all at the door.  

“What are you doing?” screeched the doorbell. Over the crashing, Pam heard a dial tone. He must be calling the police.

>I COULD DO WITH SOME BACKUP BEFORE THE FUZZ GETS HERE, she tapped into her Command Line. 

“Help! Help!” The doorbell was gabbling away to an incomprehensible honk on the end of an emergency line. Had to be an intercom, Pam thought. Why did they have to have such terrible diction? “It’s a house invasion.”

Pam paused her efforts to barge the door and reached out, plucking the doorbell out of his cradle.

“Don’t kill me!” he pleaded. “I have four little bells at home.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” she said. “What do you think this is?” 

The doorbell stared at what Pam had just produced from her flour bin and said, “It looks like a macaroon?”

Pam huffed and turned the macaroon over. Impressed into the back was the ‘Don’t Touch’ sign that was the official seal of the Machine Republic and below that, picked out in currants was her new job title, ‘Special Agent Pamasonic Teffal’.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” asked the doorbell.

“Enjoy it with a hot chocolate,” replied Pam, “and let me get on with my job.”

She lowered the doorbell to the ground and hit the door again with her full weight, but it still wouldn’t budge. This was suspicious. Pam was a big strong girl, and this was a – to be charitable – a starter home in a sub-optimal suborb. Bob and she had lived somewhere similar when they were first integrated, and houses like this tended to have a build quality somewhere between wet cardboard and used tissue paper. Someone had definitely armoured this door.

Pam checked the items off her official search checklist. She might be new to law enforcement, but she knew everything there was to about following a recipe to the letter. She’d tried gaining access to the property by legitimate means. When that hadn’t worked she’d tried reasonable force. And now she had good reason to believe suspicious activity was taking place on the premises.

“Stand back!” she said.

The doorbell obeyed, and then paused when he saw what Pam had produced this time from her flour bin. He watched, puzzlement crinkling up his speaker grille, as Pam lit the fuse trailing out the end of the packet.

“But that’s self-raising flour,” he said.

Pam gave the packet a final shake. It was indeed full of self-raising flour. A whole kilogramme of carefully sifted self-raising flour that was well aerated and with a small detonation charge concealed in the middle like a sixpence in a Christmas pudding. Only this sixpence was designed to inflict far more damage on its target than a broken crown.

“Look,” she said, “whatever your name is…”

“Ring,” snapped the doorbell, using the hurt, angry voice of someone whose name tends to go unasked or forgotten. “Ring Crosbie.”

“Take it from an expert,” she said. “Flour can be remarkably versatile.”

She flung the packet at the door, hitting it at the precise moment the fuse ran down. The flour bomb exploded with a bang that knocked the doorbell off his feet and a cloud of acrid smoke that turned Pam’s festive red respray a dirty brown. 

And that was then the shooting started.

* * *

Tune in next Friday, 6 December, for Episode 2 of Unboxing Day: A Battlestar Suburbia Christmas story!

Find out more about the Battlestar Suburbia series by Chris McCrudden here:

Book 1: Battlestar Suburbia

Book 2: Battle Beyond the Dolestars

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Writing in a satirical age: The origin story of The Great American Cheese War

Satirical Comedy
10/10/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Paul Flower, the author of The Great American Cheese War, shares his personal take on why satire is the weapon for our times.

Crazy world we have here. In the U.S., 40 percent of the electorate is under the spell of a third-rate con man with orange skin and a personality disorder. In Britain, a smaller, younger, goofier(?) populist is following a series of leaders over the cliff of Brexit.

Every day, we face a category five storm of horror politics. Twenty-four-hour news networks bombard us with the lurid details of leader ineptitude and social division. And online, the world comes together. To tear itself apart.

Conspiracy theories—lies dressed up to parade as truth—are growing like bacteria on Trump’s Twitter feed, making it nearly impossible to discern what’s true and what’s not.

Such theories have been part of American culture since the day Alexander Hamilton met secretly with a cabal of German violinists to plot the overthrow of Russia’s Catherine the Great.

You see what I did there. (I hope.) By creating a wacky theory of my own, about Hamilton and Catherine, I spoofed the notion of conspiracy theories. The “cabal of German violinists” softens the sting of the criticism. Well, unless you’re a German violinist.

It’s satire.

For some people, satire at a time like this is completely inappropriate or at best, futile. What’s the point of making fun of the already absurd Boris Johnson or the real estate huckster in the fat suit who waddles into the oval office every morning around 11:00 a.m. to destroy the free world?

For me, dark humor is in my DNA.

When I was in eighth grade, I played cornet in the band. I was pretty good, thank you. But when we competed in a festival one autumn Saturday, the judges gave us a four rating. The highest rating was a one. The worst bands usually received threes.

After the event, my dad smiled, said “Hi, Paul,” and waved, palm out—four fingers up. Message received. A four rating was awful. But even when things are awful—especially when things are awful—you have to laugh.

Humor isn’t just an emotional diversion or an immature reaction to a difficult situation (although I’ll own both). It allows us to see today’s conspiracy mongering and lies for what they are. It shines light on the ridiculous and dangerous without all the screaming, fire-breathing, and division.

So go ahead. Fly your Trump-in-a-diaper balloon. Wig out at the Boris haircut.

By satirizing all of this, maybe we’ll find what we need most: the truth. And a good belly laugh.

Find out all about The Great American Cheese War here – and leave an online review to let us know what you think!

Review quote about The Great American Cheese War

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The “difficult” second album

Social comedy
03/04/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Author Isabel Rogers gives a behind-the-scenes view of the making of her second novel, Bold As Brass – coming to a bookshop near you this July.

Cover artwork for Bold As Brass

Cover by the clever people at Head Design, who also did Life, Death and Cellos

It wasn’t difficult, though. When I originally met my editor, Abbie Headon, she put up with me waving my hands around Kermit-style while I shuffled seventeen sheets of paper with plots written on them, spider-style, all over the kitchen table. She sensibly ate cake throughout. The point is: I have loads of plot ideas. The difficult thing was deciding which one to go for.

In the end, the second book in my Stockwell Park Orchestra series is called Bold As Brass. (No, I didn’t search the internet in case my jaunty title coincided with a Cliff Richard album. Why would I? Or indeed if a Dragon’s Den entrepreneur had written an autobiography of the same name. We are unlikely to be confused with each other.)

*MY* Bold As Brass combines eviscerating satire of both the public school system and your bog-standard state comprehensive (sorry, Academy) with skulduggery from a washed-up composer and some frankly outstanding posh names. There is an off-duty police officer, a tweed outfit that puts the smoking into ‘smoking jacket’, and precision laser deployment of the words ‘stook’ and ‘befurbelowed’. Plus a trombone player called Carl. There are children and animals. There is gaffer tape and a drain plunger. There is a highly controversial brass fanfare. Take that, Cliff and Hilary. Bet you can’t compete with that kind of content.

All our old friends are still there, apart from Fenella who is staying with her mother until her wrist mends, and Joshua who is probably working in a Starbucks by now. If you haven’t read Life, Death and Cellos yet (and why not?), please don’t read this paragraph.

What have I made the musicians of Stockwell Park Orchestra do now? Find out on 11th July. Or get me drunk and you probably won’t be able to shut me up.

Better still, pre-order (yes, I know I swore I’d never use that term but it turns out it actually does mean something), because it makes an enormous difference to how much notice people take in the first week of publication. Even more so if you can pre-order through your local bookshop. More books are published in the UK per person than anywhere else. If a bookseller sees one of them is a solid sale before it is even published, it blips their radar and they get interested. Otherwise, the Farrago link here can connect you to Hive (a friendly online book ordering system that also donates to your chosen local bookshop) or others. It will be in eBook and paperback versions.

As another incentive, if you tell me you have pre-ordered AND ARE TELLING THE TRUTH, I’ll send you a personal card to use as a book mark. Not that you’ll need it as you won’t be able to stop reading, obviously. Either tweet me or use the contact page here.

And if all this hard sell makes you feel awkward, let me explain that my publishing deal was for two books. If they don’t sell well enough, I won’t be asked to write a third (and quite understandably too). But I’d really like to – just let me dig out these spidery plot diagrams…

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Five Secret Things About Orchestras

Social comedy
05/02/2019 | POSTED BY Abbie

Isabel Rogers, author of Life, Death and Cellos, spills the beans on what really goes on behind those music stands…

I could never have written Life, Death and Cellos if I hadn’t spent a lot of time playing in orchestras. If you never have, they might seem a daunting bunch of people dressed in black looking serious. There’s a guy (almost always still a guy) with untidy hair waving his arms around at the front. But things aren’t always how they appear.

The baton

It may look like a conductor waggles his baton, the orchestra starts automatically and then carries on until the notes run out. In fact, there are specific arm movements to indicate what beat of the bar you are on. Usually bars have two, three or four beats ­– sometimes five or seven if a composer is particularly adventurous or hungover, and there’s compound time where six beats pretend to be two groups of three… look, it’s complicated, is all I’m trying to say. There’s a bloke doing one-handed semaphore with a little white pointy stick, using movements that differ between people as much as handwriting does.

To start a bar, the baton draws an imaginary vertical line downwards. Imagine you’re waiting to play on that first beat. Do you start when the baton is at the top? When it starts to move? When it hits the bottom of an as-yet-unspecified length of line? When it starts changing direction? Do you follow the conductor’s eyebrow lift, his sniff or his buttock-hitch?

The secret, of course, is to time your entry to a microsecond after your neighbour and thereafter confidently lead the way.

Transposition

When the oboe plays an A for everyone to tune to, not everyone plays an A. The strings do, then twiddle about on their other strings to make sure everything’s okey-dokey. The horns will pretend to play an A but really they’re thinking E, because they transpose, which means every time they play a note they are lying. Trumpets will pretend to play an A but sneak in a B. Clarinets can’t even agree among themselves how much to pretend: it could be either B, C or F sharp. This is for historical reasons I can’t go into here and also life is too short. Just know that junior orchestras spend a LOT of time arguing about what note the horns or trumpets or clarinets got wrong once they’ve stopped, because everybody knows it is a lie. This is why musicians have trust issues. That and the drinking.

Fun with transposition

I once played horn in a piece that started with a horn fanfare, followed by an identical trumpet fanfare. Just before we started, the whisper came down the line of horns to ‘play it up a tone!’. We could of course transpose at sight because horn players are brilliant like that and have to do it all the time, for historical etc. see above reasons. So, we played it and it sounded AMAZING. The trumpets came in and sounded AWFUL and WRONG and couldn’t work out why. We did it again: same result. By the third go, the trumpets were looking stressed and the conductor had started to twitch. We eventually owned up, but never underestimate the satisfaction of making another section of the orchestra look stupid. It is low-grade war all the time. The conductor sometimes barely brokers peace deals.

Musicians have the dirtiest minds

Especially in youth orchestras, where the hormones swill around at alarming levels and everyone is in love with everyone else at one time or another, possibly all at once. Trying to get young musicians to play as a unit is difficult, and a conductor must try different approaches. In one symphony rehearsal, our conductor told the horn section – who had to time their chord entry carefully to the end of an oboe solo – to ‘watch Jenny’s back for when she comes’. They never did get it right: one of them always corpsed.

Playing the cello while pregnant can surprise the whole orchestra

There comes a stage in pregnancy when you have to rest your cello on your bump. That’s all fine and dandy when your baby is sleeping. They have excellent hearing, however. Some orchestral layouts have the trombones sitting behind the cello section, and during one rehearsal I’d leaned back in some bars rest to ease my aching spine. The whole trombone section came in very loudly and suddenly and woke my baby, who flung his limbs in all directions in a quite understandable alarm-clock-terror-scenario. My cello, which had been resting lightly on top of him, was also flung off the bump entirely, and the whole rehearsal had to stop while I picked it up and apologised for the inconvenience.

Next time you see an orchestra play, remember some of them are remembering jokes from the last rehearsal, some fancy the conductor, and a lot of them are simply fibbing about what notes they’re pretending to play. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse for you. Sorry.

To find out more about how orchestras really work, join the Stockwell Park Orchestra for a rehearsal or two with Isabel’s latest book, Life, Death and Cellos!

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Christmas in July – the problems of writing out of season

Romantic Comedy
06/12/2018 | POSTED BY Abbie

Jane Lovering, author of Christmas Secrets by the Sea, reflects on how to get that festive feeling during a heatwave 

It comes as a surprise to many of my friends that writing a book isn’t an instant process. Although I don’t know why, since most of them can’t even write a coherent note to the milkman given four weeks, a following wind and a thesaurus, but there you go. Anyway. Writing a book takes flipping ages. Then you have to build in the time for editing, cover designing and all that, so it can be about nine months from the moment you first have the bright shining idea to the book actually appearing in a form that people can hold in their hands (when it is considerably less bright and shiny and you frequently don’t care if you never hear the word ‘context’ again).

And with this big time delay come inherent problems, the chief among them being seasonality. I was writing Christmas Secrets by the Sea during the summer. A very long, and hot, summer. Imagine, if you will, the sight of an author trying to conjure the sights and smells of a winter storm on the Dorset coast, with concomitant wind, rain and other inclemencies, whilst being subjected to thirty-degree sunshine and an inconsiderate amount of gentle breeze and cloudless sky. It was tough! Fortunately I live in a house with an inside temperature so low that all visitors come in, shiver and say ‘is this place haunted?’ even during the hottest days, so I never had to resort to sitting with the fridge door open whilst listening to recordings of thunder and lightening and rubbing myself with ice cubes to get into the right mood.

So, there I sat, indoors and really quite chilly considering the outside temperature, writing about Christmas, whilst other, more normal, people were running around in swimsuits and leaping in the sea. It’s surprisingly difficult to remember what it’s like to be wanting to drink hot chocolate and mulled wine when you’re gasping for a gin and tonic and you haven’t seen a sprout for months. But that’s one of the tricks of being an author: when you have to imagine an entire story, imagining the taste of Christmas pudding and the sound of a winter storm is easy. The hard bit is describing them so that readers can also imagine the taste of a Christmas pudding, when they might be reading the story in July…

Anyway. I’ve started a new book now. It’s set during a long, hot summer. Guess when I’m writing it? Go on, take a wild stab – I’ll give you a clue: I’m wearing two fleeces and the tip of my nose just fell off.

Jane’s new book, Christmas Secrets by the Sea, will be out on Thursday 13 December. Happy Christmas!

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The Truth About Writing and Comedy

Humorous Mystery and Crime
19/11/2018 | POSTED BY Abbie

Farrago author Jonathan Pinnock takes a short break from writing his next Mathematical Mystery to share his thoughts on the serious business of humour.

So how are things going, Jonathan? Glad you asked. As it happens, I’m currently in the throes of completing the follow-up to my mathematical mystery THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE (which I really hope you’ve read, if not, why not, and no, honestly, trust me, you’re really going to enjoy it).

The first thing I’d like to say is that writing the second book commissioned in a two-book deal is very, very different from writing the first one. When you’re writing the first book in a series, you’re not really writing for anyone at all. You have no idea if anyone’s ever going to publish the thing, even less idea if anyone’s going to actually read the thing and in fact you spend a lot of your time wondering ‘Oh God, what is the point of it all?’

However, somehow you finish it and after a search that goes on slightly longer than the hunt for Lord Lucan, you eventually locate a lovely editor at Farrago who thinks you might have something worthy of a wider audience. Even better than that, she wants another book. Sure, you haven’t actually written that one yet, but that’s next week’s problem.

Anyway, the first book enters the editing and production process and at some point much, much later than you intended, you begin work on Book Two. Fortunately, you have what you think is a half-decent idea and the writing goes reasonably well, but hanging over you all the time is the knowledge that you have made a commitment to deliver the entire thing by a point in the future that is rapidly advancing towards you over the horizon. Moreover, when this point is about a month or so away, you realise that most of your waking life (and a fair bit of your unconscious life too) is now taken up with thinking about the damn thing. The rest of your time is spent wondering ‘Oh God, what is the point of it all?’

So perhaps there’s not that much difference between writing book one and book two after all.

What, then, is the point of writing? More importantly, what is the point of writing a book like the one I’m currently working on – a daft, implausible mystery full of preposterous characters and absurd situations? Surely the very act of sitting down and devoting time to something like that is as close as I can get to pure self-indulgence? Given the state of the world, is that really the best way to spend my time? Even accepting that I’m going to be spending my time writing, is that really the most appropriate thing to be working on?

The thing is, a lot of genres have got a bit tricky to work in recently. Satire pretty much died a couple of years or so ago, and today’s dystopian fiction is looking increasingly like tomorrow’s reportage. This is why I think Farrago are really on to something by highlighting humour. Perhaps it’s escapism, but is that really so bad? We need humour for our mental health and to sustain us in these weird, unsettling times. And if that humour takes care to punch in the right, upwards, direction, so much the better.

This is basically why I write books like THE TRUTH ABOUT ARCHIE AND PYE. To me, there is no nobler calling than trying to make people laugh. And if they’re spending five hours or so reading a funny book that shows a bunch of little people taking on the bad guys and winning, I don’t think I’ll have entirely wasted my time.

So maybe there is some point to it, after all.

Jonathan’s next book, A QUESTION OF TRUST, will be published in April 2019 – keep an eye on our website or follow us on Twitter for all the latest Mathematical Mystery news!

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Magical Mystery Paws on tour

Humorous Mystery and Crime
19/06/2018 | POSTED BY Abbie

We’re very excited to be bringing you Magical Mystery Paws, a new cosy mystery in the No. 2 Feline Detective Agency series by Mandy Morton – it will be available from bookshops near you from Thursday 12 July.

But if you don’t want to wait that long to meet feline super-sleuth Hattie Bagshot, Mandy will be on tour next week in Cambridge and Felixstowe – don’t miss out!

On Thursday 28 June, meet Mandy at Heffers Bookshop in Cambridge, 6:30-7:30 pm. The event is free to attend, and you can book your place here.

On Friday 29 June, join Mandy in His Lordship’s Library at the Orwell Hotel in Felixstowe at 6:15pm. At both events Mandy will be talking about her feline detective and signing advance copies of the book.

Hope to see you there!

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Orchestral Manoeuvres in Stockwell Park

News
23/05/2018 | POSTED BY Abbie

Farrago Books has acquired poet Isabel Rogers’ fiction debut, Life, Death and Cellos, in a two-book deal bringing the baton down on the Stockwell Park Orchestra Mystery series. The series, following the adventures of an amateur orchestra in London, is a perfect addition to Farrago’s humorous fiction list, following recent acquisitions of titles by Mandy Morton, Chris McCrudden and Jonathan Pinnock.

The opening novel, Life, Death and Cellos, finds the Stockwell Park Orchestra facing financial ruin after a guest conductor drops dead on stage, squashing and injuring their primary benefactor. In a tale marrying the insight of Sue Townsend with the farcical humour of John O’Farrell, a priceless cello is abducted, a conductor is stranded on the wrong side of the Atlantic, and Erin the cellist stumbles (eventually) on her true calling in life.

Isabel Rogers won the 2014 Cardiff International Poetry Competition and has been shortlisted twice in the Charles Causley poetry prize. She was Hampshire Poet Laureate 2016 and her debut poetry collection Don’t Ask was published by Eyewear in February 2017.

Commissioning Editor Abbie Headon says: “I’ve enjoyed reading Isabel’s pithy observations on Twitter for several years, and I was thrilled to discover that, as well as being a very serious poet, Isabel is also a hilarious storyteller. Life, Death and Cellos marries Isabel’s love of classical music with perfect comic timing and emotional depth.”

Isabel Rogers says: “I can’t always be moping about writing poetry. I spent too many rehearsals giggling to waste all that fantastic material, so Life, Death and Cellos muscled into my head and refused to leave until I wrote it down. I hope it might show readers who don’t play an instrument that just because people can master demisemiquavers doesn’t mean they are remotely civilised. Musicians want alcohol and custard creams. Anything else is a bonus.”

Life, Death and Cellos will be published in ebook, paperback and audiobook on 14 February 2019 and promoted through the book trade and direct to the Farrago mailing list of humorous fiction lovers. The second title in the series will be published later in 2019.

Listen up! Audiobooks to make you smile

Audiobooks
08/03/2018 | POSTED BY Abbie

Have you discovered the joy of audiobooks yet? They’re a fabulous way to enjoy great stories when you’re travelling, keeping fit, working, relaxing – in fact, almost all the time!

Here’s a list of all our current titles. We hope you enjoy them, and we’d love to hear what you think!

The Miss Seeton Mystery Series, read by Phyllida Nash

Picture Miss Seeton   Amazon   iTunes   Kobo

Miss Seeton Draws the Line   Amazon   iTunes   Kobo

Witch Miss Seeton   Amazon   iTunes   Kobo

Miss Seeton Sings   Amazon   iTunes   Kobo

Miss Seeton Quilts the Village   Amazon   iTunes   Kobo

The Bandy Papers Series, read by Robin Gabrielli

Three Cheers for Me   Amazon   iTunes

That’s Me in the Middle   Amazon   iTunes

It’s Me Again   Amazon   iTunes

Follow us here on our blog, and on Twitter and Facebook, to stay up to date with new titles. And subscribers to our newsletter (see link on homepage) will get regular updates too, of course.

Happy listening!

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