Jun 29th

On Pitches, Festivals and One-to-Ones

By Gerry

Today I received an email – probably you did too – titled ‘How to pitch to a literary agent face-to-face’ in which Sarah Ann Juckes says things like ‘If they don’t ask you what you’re writing (but chances are that they will) – ask them if you could tell them a little about your book.’


Well, there’s a concept. I’ve been going to WW Festivals of Writing ever since they were invented, and I’ve been experiencing One-to-Ones with varying degrees of satisfaction, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever done any pitching. What a moron, you might say. What do you find to talk about, you might ask.


The thing is, the conversation rarely flags. Agent goes right ahead and gives their impression of my letter and chapter, and chances are they’ll be saying things I hadn’t quite thought of before, so I’ll likely be saying deep things like ‘Um’ and ‘Er’ and, if especially articulate, ‘How do you mean?’


But pitching? This blog is to ask what you do/ have done/ intend doing one day. For that matter where have you done your pitching – past or putative? Sarah Ann Juckes’s email specifies WW London Lit Salons as well as the Festivals of Writing, so I guess that allows for a few opportunities.


And what have you said (or, like me, failed to say) in your pitches? Sarah Ann Juckes recommends two to three sentences that convey your hook. Her own example goes like this: ‘My book is about a girl who is trapped in a room. One day, she finds a hole in the wall, and realises there is a world outside.’


Well, fair enough, you’d want to know more, wouldn’t you? So what are your pitches for these Salon/Festival encounters? My latest goes like this: ‘The book is about a man who gets murdered by his wife and gradually learns to love her again.’


Could be a winner (marriage and death, along with birth, making up the trinity of human interests) but, well, I’ve discovered a talent over the years for avoiding overnight stardom. How about you? Desert Island Discs next week? Or are you still a few inches away from that irresistible hook?

Jun 29th

Was Shakespeare really Italian?

By stephenterry


Apologies if you are aware of the following - I didn't, so 'twas new to me. I'd like Mike's take on it.


A recent Bangkok Post article detailed a few European heritage sites that offered a fascinating, first-hand look at the locales and edifices that feature in The Bard's life and works. Places mentioned included, the Henley Street birthplace, Anne Hathaway's home, the Globe Theatre and several more.

On his tomb the self-penned inscription:-

Good friend for Jesus sake forebeare,

 to digg the dust enclosed heare. 

Bleste be ye man y'spares the stones

and curst be he y'moves my bones.

The article continues to provide overseas settings - one in particular describes how Shakespeare used the Italian city of Messina in northeast Sicily as the setting for Much Ado About Nothing, but a theory tabled by an Italian academic suggests The Bard's connection to that country is more than just fiction.

Professor Martino Luvara (Google gets there first) theorised in 2002 that a young Sicilian noble from Messina named Michelangelo Crollalanza (in Italian, 'crollare' = collapse and 'lanza' = spear) emigrated to England, later Anglicising his name to 'William Shakespeare'.

A compelling argument, continues the article, considering the many Shakespeare plays set in Italy, along with the dramatist's uncanny knowledge of Italian politics, laws, customs and literature, despite having claimed never to have travelled abroad.

Still widespread scepticism - or is it true?



Jun 27th

Down The Back Of The Sofa

By Dolly

It seems that Teresa and her jolly chums have magically produced one billion pounds for the D.U.P. Now, questions have been asked as to where this money came from, someone even suggestingg they found it down the back of the sofa.

A couple of hours ago, I discussed the feasabilty of this with George, a friend of mine. He said it was a possibility, as the sofa in question was a really big one, so big in fact it has a cellar! In the cellar were a number of rooms and passageways, and one of these leads to a little known, obscure room in the Bank of England, where there is always a plentiful supply of the readies, and that is where the money came from.

Now, you have to be careful with George, as he has been known to exagerate. For instance, he once told me he knew someone called Crocodile Braithwaite, who claimed there were crocodiles in the Leeds-Liverpool canal. I of course pooh-poohed the whole idea, but he insisted he had seen proof in the form of a photograph of a man with one leg. Previous to the photograph being taken, he was a two legged canoeist, and was happily paddling along the upper reaches of the canal near Wigan, when he was tipped out of his canoe, and a crocodile had his leg off!

I scoffed! Oh how I scoffed! But then I was told if I went to a certain spot on the canal between Blacburn and Burnley around the beginning of September, you will witness the magnificent spectacle of the migration of thousands of wildebeasts on their way from Leeds to Clitheroe.

Like I said, George is liable to exagerate, so I don't think there is much credence in the down the back of the sofa idea.

Jun 26th

The thinking behind book stores stocking books

By Squidge

Think I posted a while back that Kingstone was being stocked in some Barnes and Noble stores?

Today I got photographic proof! But more interestingly, BInk talked to the manager of the bookstore they visited to find out why Kingstone is being stocked in such apparently random stores across the US.

I've added a link to their blog on the Scribbles - click HERE - if any of you are interested in the thinking behind the stocking decisions, not just of Kingstone but of other titles that come from small indies...




Jun 25th

Stories for Homes

By Catasshe

Dear Cloudies, 

Lovely new Flash fiction story on the theme of Home published in the online anthology. 

Please share far and wide!



Jun 25th

Quintinshill: Breaking the Rules

By RichardB

I have blogged about this one before. It was the first railway blog I did, but its approach and emphasis were different from what became my usual style, so I thought it was about time I brought it into line with the others. To do the story justice this has meant expanding it to a rather inordinate length (over 5,000 words: you have been warned) for a blog. For those who enjoy these railway stories, I hope that the interest of this one will sustain you; to those who don't, I apologise for hogging the blog front page.


Just north of Gretna Green the M74 passes through a flat, quiet countryside of fields and scattered trees. It is an entirely unremarkable landscape, and as you drive through it there is nothing to tell you that, less than a mile from the motorway across those empty fields, lies the site of the worst railway disaster in British history.


It is tragically ironic that this appalling accident should have had such a green and peaceful setting. It is a further tragic irony that it had one of the simplest causes of all British railway disasters: nothing more than a flagrant disregard of the rules by two signalmen, and an astounding lapse of memory on the part of one of them.


At least that was the verdict enshrined in the report of the official enquiry and the subsequent trial for culpable homicide (the Scottish equivalent of manslaughter), and repeated without question by railway historians for decades afterwards. It is only quite recently that people have been doing a bit of digging and rethinking, and have suggested that it might not have been quite as simple as that.


The first seeds of disaster were sown over three hundred miles to the south and several hours earlier, with the late departure of two Glasgow-bound sleeper expresses from Euston.


It is May 1915, and the railways of Britain are straining to cope with the extra traffic generated by the Great War, but the London and North Western Railway and its partner in the West Coast route, the Caledonian Railway, don't see that as any reason to curtail their most prestigious trains. There are reputations to be maintained. The LNWR likes to call itself the Premier Line, and the Caledonian adopts a similar attitude in Scotland. And the Anglo-Scottish expresses are the jewels in their crowns. Nothing is going to stop those trains running.


But not necessarily on time. Despite the LNWR's vaunted reputation for punctuality, disruptions and congestion caused by the wartime traffic result in both expresses leaving Euston about half-an-hour late. Little or none of that time has been made up by the time a sunny Saturday morning has dawned and the trains are nearing Carlisle, where they will be handed over to the Caledonian. They are still running about half-an-hour late.


This poses a problem. The expresses are supposed to leave Carlisle at 5.50 and 6.05, to be followed by the first local passenger train of the day at 6.17. That train has an importance beyond its lowly status, for when it reaches its destination at Beattock its locomotive is due to be transferred to a much more prestigious working, a fast train to Glasgow. If the local waits to follow the sleepers, this connection will be missed, so it is sent on ahead of the expresses. It leaves Carlisle a few minutes early, at about 6.10.


Even so, if  the local runs ahead of the expresses all the way to Beattock it will delay them further, and that mustn't be allowed to happen. It will have to be shunted somewhere to let the expresses through. That somewhere, on this occasion, is an isolated signal-box called Quintinshill in the middle of the fields between Gretna Junction, the third station from Carlisle, and Kirkpatrick, the next station to the north. Quintinshill is more than just a wayside signal-box: there are passing loops on both the northbound and southbound lines.


There is nothing very unusual in this arrangement. In the previous six months the local has been shunted at Quintinshill twenty-one times, but today it will trigger catastrophe.


For Signalman George Meakin at Quintinshill, it is one more piece in the puzzle he has to solve this morning. Six trains are converging on his box. From the south, a slow goods train, the local passenger train, and the two sleeper expresses. From the north, a train of empty trucks returning from carrying coal for the Grand Fleet at its wartime base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, and a troop special. Three of these trains have high priority and must not be delayed on any account: the two expresses and the troop train, which has been given a level of priority usually accorded only to royal trains.


The northbound goods train is the first to arrive, at 6.14, and Meakin puts it in the northbound loop. So far so simple, but a problem is looming. The southbound coal empties train is bound for the marshalling yard at Kingmoor, Carlisle, and Meakin has been notified that all the sidings there are full already. The train will have to be held in his southbound loop, quite possibly for several hours. Where is he to shunt the local passenger train?


He has only one alternative left. He will have to back it over the crossover between the two main lines to stand facing wrong-way on the southbound main line. This isn't dangerous as long as all the safety checks and safeguards are carried out, and out of those twenty-one recent shunts it has been done four times in perfect safety. His plan is to get it out of the way of the southbound troop train by letting it proceed to Kirkpatrick as soon as the first sleeper express has gone through. There it will have to be shunted again to let the second sleeper pass, but such are the demands of the heavy wartime traffic.


His decision made, Meakin phones the signalman to the south at Gretna Junction, whose name, confusingly, is Roger Kirkpatrick. 'The boy will get a ride this morning,' he tells him.


The fact is that Meakin shouldn't even still be at work: his shift finishes at 6.00. But getting up early enough to arrive at work at six is a pain, especially when you have to walk nearly two miles to get there, and there is an arrangement between Meakin and his colleague James Tinsley, who lives in the railway cottages next to the station at Gretna, that the takeover time is a bit flexible. This benefits each of them in turn, but Tinsley takes advantage of it more often. And when the local is going to be shunted at Quintinshill, he hitches a lift, to save himself the walk.


To stop the game being given away by the change of handwriting in the signal-box train register, the two men have invented a subterfuge. Ever since six o'clock Meakin has been recording all the train movements on a loose piece of paper, and when Tinsley arrives he will copy them into the register. This is, of course, absolutely against the rules.


When Roger Kirkpatrick, who is James Tinsley's next-door neighbour in the railway cottages, gets Meakin's message he gives Tinsley a hand signal from his signal-box window to tell him that he can take the train today. Tinsley hurries into the station and climbs into the cab of the local's engine. This is another breach of the rules. No unauthorised person is supposed to ride in an engine's cab.


This morning the locomotive is an unusually distinguished one for such a lowly train. Number 907, one of a small class of five which are the biggest engines on the Caledonian and the pride of the line, has just been overhauled at the company's works at St Rollox, Glasgow, and it is doing this easy job as a running-in turn.


By the time the local arrives at Quintinshill at about 6.30, the train of coal empties is already crawling up to the southbound signal, waiting to go into the southbound loop. The local pulls to a halt and begins to back over the crossover onto the southbound main line. As the locomotive negotiates the crossover James Tinsley jumps off, crosses the southbound loop track and climbs the steps into the signal-box. He is just over half-an-hour late for work.


There is already someone in the signal-box with Meakin. Thomas Ingram, the guard from the goods train in the northbound loop, has been there for some minutes. Although it's quite legitimate for him to come to the box to ask how long his train is going to be held, nobody is supposed to hang around chatting to the signalman.


Meakin quickly brings Tinsley up to speed on the traffic situation and what has to be done next, and immediately afterwards the bell goes on the block telegraph for the northbound line. It is Gretna Junction sending the 'Train entering section' signal for the first sleeper express. Meakin sends Thomas Sawyers at Kirkpatrick to the north the 'Is line clear?' bell code (or, as signalmen say, offers the train forward to him), and receiving an acceptance in reply, clears his northbound signals.


By 6.34 the train of coal empties is in the southbound loop, and Signalman Sawyers at Kirkpatrick has received the 'Train out of section' bell signal from Quintinshill on his block telegraph. Whoever sent that signal will forever remain a mystery, for both Meakin and Tinsley will steadfastly deny having sent it, but one of them must have. It tells Sawyers, quite correctly, that the empties train is clear of the main line, but in the lack of any further information it also means, as far as he is concerned, that the southbound main line is now available for further trains.


But it is not. The local train is standing on that line, outside Quintinshill signal-box. There is another block telegraph bell signal, known as blocking back, that can be used to notify a signalman of an obstruction on the line, but that signal has not been sent.


There is another precaution that the rules say must be used when a line is blocked, a collar that slips over the handle of the signal lever. It sits between the handle and the lever of the release catch, preventing the catch from being released and making it impossible to move the signal lever. Meakin has not put that collar on the lever. Tinsley has only just got off the train that's blocking the line. He won't need the collar to remind him.


Meakin has now finished work for the day, but he's in no hurry to leave. He settles down in a corner of the box to read today's newspaper that Tinsley has brought with him. And now another man enters the box. George Hutchinson, the fireman of the local passenger train, has come in accordance with Rule 55, the rule that says you must notify the signalman of your train's presence if you are kept standing at a signal. Tinsley hands him a pen and he signs the register to confirm that he has carried out the rule. Hutchinson doesn't leave the box straight away, but stays for a few minutes chatting to Meakin and Ingram.


A couple of minutes after Hutchinson's arrival the first sleeper express passes through. That's one train out of the equation. By now Tinsley is busying himself copying Meakin's notes into the train register.


At 6.40 Thomas Ingram finally leaves the box to return to his train, and George Hutchinson goes with him. Rule 55 also says that he should have satisfied himself that the collar is on the lever of the signal protecting his train, but he hasn't done this. After all, by coming to the box he has reminded James Tinsley of the presence of his train, the train Tinsley jumped off only a few minutes ago, and Tinsley has only just been speaking to him about it. He has told him that he will have to wait until the second express has gone through.


Exactly why Tinsley has departed from Meakin's plan to let the local train go between the two expresses will never be known, because he will never be asked. He made a phone call to Carlisle about the second sleeper's whereabouts before speaking to Hutchinson, so perhaps he has decided that there isn't time.


But the result is that when, a couple of minutes later at 6.42, Thomas Sawyers at Kirkpatrick sends the 'Is line clear?' bell code on the block telegraph, the local passenger train is still standing on the southbound main line.


The train Sawyers is offering is the high-priority troop special, carrying A and D Companies of the 7th Royal Scots on their way to board a ship at Liverpool. It is common knowledge, or at least firm supposition, among the men that they are headed for the blood-soaked beaches of Gallipoli, but none of them are expecting to die before they have even left Scotland.


Sawyers has no reason not to offer the train forward. The last bell signal he received from Quintinshill concerning the southbound line was 'Out of section' for the train of coal empties now in the southbound loop there. He hasn't been told anything about the local.


Even now everything will still be well if Tinsley declines to accept the troop train. Nothing worse will happen than it suffering a short delay at the Kirkpatrick signals until the second express has passed Quintinshill and the local passenger train has crossed back to the northbound line to continue its journey.


But, astoundingly, he does accept it. With the train he has alighted from about ten minutes ago, the train he has just phoned Carlisle about, standing right outside his signal box blocking the line, he acknowledges Sawyers' bell signal, saying in effect 'Okay, the line's clear. Send it on.' Even when he records what he has done in the train register, where Hutchinson's signature is there to remind him, he doesn't twig. Meakin, still engrossed in the newspaper, isn't paying any attention and doesn’t realise what's happening.


Four minutes later the troop train hammers past Kirkpatrick signal-box 'going very fast,' as Sawyers will say. Since leaving Larbert at 3.42 the train has suffered several delays, and now its driver, Francis Scott, is trying to make up time. Sawyers sends the 'Train entering section' bell code to Quintinshill. Even now there is one last chance to avert disaster. The southbound signals at Quintinshill are still at danger. If only Tinsley were to look out of the window...


But he doesn't. The levers and the block instruments are at the back of the cabin, and the men work with their backs to the line. They have a clearer view of the line without the levers and instruments in the way, but they have to turn round to see it. And Tinsley doesn't do that. He offers the train on to Gretna Junction, gets an acceptance, and pulls off his southbound signals. There is nothing to stop him. That safety collar is not on the southbound home signal lever.


Meanwhile George Hutchinson has climbed back onto his engine and told his driver, David Wallace, about the further delay. He decides to have a bite to eat while he's waiting and is just opening his piece-box, as he calls it, when he happens to glance up. He is horrified to see the signal that is supposed to be protecting his train standing at clear. He tells Wallace.


From his side of the cab Wallace can see for some distance along the gentle left-hand bend their train is standing on. He sees, less than two hundred yards away, a train heading directly towards him. With only seconds before the impact, there is nothing they can do. He dives off his side of the engine, and Hutchinson does likewise, both men taking refuge under the wagons of the goods trains on either side.


On the troop train Driver Scott is running at about 70mph under clear signals, still hurrying to make up lost time. As he approaches Quintinshill his view is obstructed by the slight bend in the line and the goods train standing in the northbound loop. It is only when his train emerges from under a road overbridge that he sees the local train blocking his line, only a couple of hundred yards away.


He slams on the brakes, but a heavy train takes further than that to come to a halt from 70 mph, much further. Scott hasn't a chance. The troop train is still doing at least 40mph when, at 6.49, it runs headlong into 907, one of the largest and heaviest engines on the Caledonian Railway. The result is catastrophic.


With wartime pressures on the railways, a collection of ancient carriages belonging to the English Great Central Railway has been pressed into service for the troop train. All are made almost entirely of wood, and their crash resistance is close to zero. A train with a length of over two hundred yards is reduced to a pile of wreckage just sixty-seven yards long.


'Good God, Jamie, what have you done?' George Meakin may have been paying no attention to the ringing of the block bells and the pulling of levers, but the thunder of the collision is impossible to ignore. He was on the point of leaving, but seeing the appalling chaos outside and his mate standing at the window aghast and paralysed by shock, he runs to the lever frame and throws every signal to danger. There is not a moment to lose. The second sleeper express has already entered their section, and will be arriving at any minute. And there is wreckage strewn all over the northbound line.


The engine of the local train has been driven over forty yards down the track. The coaches have broken free and rolled back another hundred yards. Guard Douglas Graham has been thrown to the end of his van by the shock of the collision, but he quickly recovers, his railwayman's instincts taking over. The express must be almost upon them by now, and it must be stopped.


Without pausing to pick up his flags and detonators, he runs along the track towards Gretna. Driver James Benson and Fireman John Grierson from the empty coal train run after him, with the same thought in their minds. Graham has covered less than 200 yards when the express passes him, double-headed and doing about 50mph. His efforts haven't been entirely in vain, for he hears the brakes go on hard, but he knows the train is much too close to the wreckage to stop in time. Both his desperate dash and George Meakin's throwing of the signal levers have come too late.


Like the troop train, the express has been running under clear signals. The Quintinshill distant signal also is still at clear when the train passes it, and there is no clue that anything is amiss until Fireman David Todhunter on the leading engine sees, from his position on the right side of the cab, Guard Graham waving his arms and blowing his whistle. He alerts his driver, John Cowper, who sees, first three men gesticulating in a way that leaves him in no doubt that something is very wrong, and then the pile of wreckage in his path. He puts the brakes full on, and so does Driver Andrew Johnstone on the second engine, but the train is still doing around 40mph when, only one minute after the first collision, it ploughs into the wreckage. The demolished remains of the wooden coaches offer little resistance, but the same can't be said of 907's big tender, which is lying right across the northbound line.


With shattered wood everywhere and hot coals spilt from the fireboxes of the wrecked locomotives, fire is all but inevitable. It starts soon after the second collision and spreads quickly. But wood and coal aren't the half of it.


Nearly all the carriages of the troop train are lit by gas, carried under pressure in cylinders beneath the carriages. As the fire takes hold the cylinders begin to explode, turning the fire into an inferno that spreads to the express and to both of the goods trains in the loops, and will blaze all day and into the next. And there are soldiers still alive trapped in the wreckage. It is perhaps best to draw a veil over the harrowing scenes as their comrades, the railwaymen present, and others who arrive to help labour desperately through the morning to free as many as they can.


There is some imprecision about the total death toll, as the regimental roll was lost in the fire, but it is usually given as 227. Of these 217 were in the troop train, including Driver Francis Scott and his fireman, James Hannah. Another 191 soldiers were injured. When a roll call of those still on their feet was held later in the morning in a field by the lineside, out of the 500-plus men who had been on the train only 52 men answered their names. That's roughly 90% casualties, worse than anything that would happen on the Somme the next year.


But the story doesn't end there, nor with the mass funeral through the streets of Leith – nearly all the soldiers had been recruited from there and nearby Musselburgh, and the communities were devastated. The enquiry, what it said, and even more what it didn't say, are a whole further chapter.


'The responsibility for the collision lies entirely with the two signalmen, G Meakin and J Tinsley,' wrote Lieutenant-Colonel K Druitt, reporting on the accident to the Board of Trade, and again, a few paragraphs further on, 'This disastrous collision was thus due to want of discipline on the part of the signalmen.' Meakin and Tinsley were charged with culpable homicide, tried, found guilty, and imprisoned. Other British railwaymen have faced charges of manslaughter after accidents, but usually mitigating circumstances have been put forward, and as far as I know the only other time a prison sentence has resulted was when a signalman deliberately moved a set of points under a moving train.


A simple and clear verdict, but was it the whole story? Modern accident enquiries dig deeper than the errors that are the immediate causes of disaster. This one didn't. It didn't dig deeply even by the standards of the time. Most railway accident enquiries last for several days, but this one, into the worst accident that had ever occurred on a British railway, was adjourned after one day and never re-opened – or officially closed.


The possible reasons for this are the long-untold story of the Quintinshill disaster. 


There is no arguing away the fact that Meakin and Tinsley were culpable, nor that if both signalmen had stuck to the rules the accident wouldn't have happened. And there were many breaches of regulations. The unauthorised change of shift, leading Tinsley to be busy falsifying the train register when he should have been concentrating entirely on the job on hand. Tinsley's illicit ride on the footplate of 907. The social club atmosphere in the signal-box. The failure to send the blocking back signal to Kirkpatrick. And, most crucially, the absence of the safety collar on that signal lever. A picture seems to emerge of slapdash, happy-go-lucky carelessness in the signal-box at Quintinshill, of a pair of bad apples letting the side down. But was the situation there really so unusual?


What a rule is in theory and what it is in practice are not necessarily the same thing. What is all too often the reality was recognised, and eloquently expressed, as long ago as 1868 by Colonel F H Rich, reporting on an equally horrific, though smaller scale, accident at Abergele on the London and North Western Railway's North Wales main line:


'I fear that it is only too true that the rules printed and issued by railway companies to their servants, and which are generally very good, are made principally with the object of being produced when accidents happen from the breach of them, and that the companies systematically allow many of them to be broken daily, without taking the slightest notice of the disobedience.'


In other words, expediency, laziness and complacency (not to mention economics) lead to corners being cut and safety regulations being paid lip service all along the chain of command. Things are allowed to slide and blind eyes are turned as long as the operations roll on smoothly (and the money rolls in), until disaster brings everyone up with a jerk. Then those in authority plead ignorance, make the appropriate noises of shock and horror, and lay the blame on their subordinates down at the sharp end. They broke the rules, didn't they?


A more recent example is the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, where although the immediate cause was the failure of the assistant boatswain to close the bow doors, the enquiry found that the root cause was a culture of sloppiness, negligence and poor communications throughout Townsend Thoresen, with safety playing second fiddle to the need for a slick turnaround at the ports.


Does this situation apply to the Quintinshill disaster? Let's start with that crucial little safety collar.


It seems there was a widely held opinion in the railway world that a competent signalman shouldn't need safety collars to remind him not to pull a lever, and that they were a bit of a waste of time. One major British railway, the Midland, never used them at all, and there is evidence strongly suggesting that they were routinely ignored on the Caledonian, at least on that part of its system that contained Quintinshill. This rather puts into perspective the righteous indignation expressed then, and later, about George Meakin's 'flagrant' disregard of the rule. He was merely doing what he and his colleagues normally did, and it is hard to believe that at least the signalmen's immediate supervisors were unaware of a practice that went on every day. 


As for the unauthorised shift changes, Signalman Kirkpatrick at Gretna was obviously in on the secret. Another of James Tinsley's neighbours in the Gretna Junction railway cottages was Alexander Thorburn, the stationmaster and Tinsley and Meakin's (and Kirkpatrick's) supervisor. He denied all knowledge of any irregularity in the shift changeovers, but it is hard to accept his word that he never noticed his neighbour leaving late for work, when it happened so often. Although he was on the platform at Gretna that morning, he also claimed not to have seen Tinsley climbing onto the footplate of Number 907. His line of sight was obstructed, he said. Lieutenant-Colonel Druitt did actually voice his doubts about Thorburn's statements, but that was about the only discordant note in a report that was otherwise dedicated to pinning the blame on Meakin and Tinsley.


Such laissez-faire attitudes to the rules were hardly unique to Quintinshill or even the Caledonian, as was illustrated only six years later, when slapdash working and a series of blunders at Abermule Station in Mid-Wales sent a train down a single track to collide with another coming the opposite way; but having failures of supervision along the chain of command exposed in a court of enquiry would have done the Caledonian Railway's reputation no good at all. 


A modern report would almost certainly have exposed those laissez-faire attitudes, and that's not all it would have investigated. It would certainly have had something to say about the composition of that troop train. Although the impact of the second collision wasn't as severe as that of the first, it was still a heavy one; but the express was composed of up-to-date coaches with steel under-frames, and only eight people lost their lives on that train. The troop train has been called 'a death-trap on wheels,' and although that is a rather inflammatory statement it is not entirely wide of the mark. 


Very likely the insistence on retaining a full peacetime passenger service with unchanged priorities alongside all the extra traffic caused by the war, thus placing undue strain on the system, the signalmen and everyone else involved in keeping the trains running, would have been questioned, and might have been identified as the root cause of the disaster.


But all these issues are merely contributory factors. What remains to be explained is the actual, immediate cause of the accident. How could James Tinsley possibly have forgotten about that local train? One of Britain’s best known railway authors called it ‘starkly incredible,’ and that is just what it is. But it was many years before anybody tried to dig deeper.


The explanations put forward at the enquiry, at the trial, and ever since do carry some weight. Yes, his falsification of the train register can hardly have helped his concentration. Yes, there was extraneous chatter going on in the signal-box, though it does appear that Tinsley was taking little part in it. But are these enough to account for such an astonishing lapse of memory? That train was standing right outside his signal-box. He had ridden on it from Gretna and had got off it only twenty minutes before the collision.


So what did Tinsley have to say for himself? ‘I forgot about it the minute I jumped off the engine and it never entered my mind again until after the accident had happened.’


Really? Any counsel, if so minded, could have ripped that statement to shreds. George Hutchinson, the local train's fireman, testified that Tinsley was speaking to him about it, probably less than five minutes before pulling off his signals. The discrepancy was never brought up, and Tinsley's self-damning words were accepted without question.


Why did Tinsley make that statement, which he must have known was untrue and would only incriminate him further? And why was it never challenged?


In recent years an allegation has been made that might go some way to offering an explanation. It is that James Tinsley was epileptic, and that his extraordinary lapse was due to mental confusion in the aftermath of a fit.


It's a tempting theory. Unfortunately, there is no hard evidence to support it. It is based on a second-hand source: a scribbled note made by one of the policemen sent to arrest Tinsley, saying that his doctor had forbidden him to be moved as he had been suffering from epileptic fits. It’s equally possible that the ‘fits’ were symptoms of post-traumatic stress, a condition unrecognised in 1915 (and even epilepsy was poorly understood then). Nothing is known now about whether he had fits in earlier or later life (and he lived until 1957), but at the time of the disaster he had been a signalman for eight years, and one must ask how he had got away with it for so long if he were indeed epileptic. The assertion must be regarded as not proven.


Another mystery is why Tinsley didn't send on the local train as soon as the first express had passed, as Meakin intended. The first collision came eleven minutes after that express had gone through, and the local had been standing on the northbound line for nearly twenty minutes. According to Hutchinson, Tinsley hadn't simply forgotten about the local but had made a conscious decision to hold it back. What was going on in his head? Did he not realise that his decision was bound to delay the ultra-high priority troop train? This was another issue passed over without comment at the enquiry, although it is strongly suggestive of mental confusion and therefore of something being very wrong with James Tinsley that morning, whether epilepsy or something else.


Or perhaps it was precisely because it suggested that something was seriously wrong with Tinsley. Of all the cans of worms that a thoroughgoing enquiry might have opened, the employment of a signalman who was medically unfit for the job to the point of being a danger to the travelling public was the most potentially damaging.


It has been suggested that the purpose of that truncated enquiry was not so much to reveal the causes of the disaster but to conceal them. In other words, it was a whitewash. There were more reputations than the Caledonian Railway's at stake: the Government had taken over the administration of the railways for the duration of the war, and it was already looking very shaky after the setbacks at Gallipoli and a scandal about shell shortages on the Western Front. It really didn't need any more mud being slung at it.


So, the theory goes, it was decided to hush all the underlying issues up by ignoring them and fixing the whole blame on Meakin and Tinsley, who, after all, were indeed culpable, and that they were coerced into co-operating. Tinsley's incredible statement was part of a script he'd been given and told to stick to.


Classic conspiracy theory stuff, isn't it? But there is one persuasive argument for Tinsley and Meakin having been hung out to dry by their employers. It is something that has always been out in the open for all to see, and the most surprising thing is that nobody seems to have drawn attention to it earlier.


Early twentieth century employers were not known for their benevolence or for their readiness to forgive wrong-doing. After that accident at Abermule mentioned above, all four of the staff on duty at the station at the time got the sack. Yet when Tinsley and Meakin, whose failures were more blatant and caused far greater loss of life, were released from prison (their sentences commuted after pressure from the NUR), the Caledonian Railway took them both back into its employment, though not as signalmen. Tinsley’s wife and children were even allowed to continue living in Caledonian Railway housing while he was in jail. Even today this would be surprising. In the context of those times, it is well-nigh incredible.


Unless some sort of ultimatum were presented and a deal struck: you two fall into line and take all the blame, and we’ll see you right.


Right beside the 'Famous Blacksmith's Shop' in Gretna Green there is a turning off the village's main street. It is only a country lane and doesn't seem to lead anywhere much, but follow it for about a kilometre northwards and you will find yourself on a small bridge over a railway. This is the bridge that helped to obscure the unfortunate Driver Scott's vision until it was too late, and there is a plaque set into the stonework commemorating the disaster. The signal-box vanished years ago during the electrification and modernisation of the West Coast Main Line, but the passing loops are still there, visible from the bridge and passed every day by the Pendolinos as they whisper their way to and from Glasgow.

Jun 24th

Cringe-worthy literary devices

By Hil

The other day I listened to Open Book on Radio 4 with Mariella Frostrup talking to Antonia Hodgson and Peter Kemp about literary devices that make them cringe.

One was lost memories that are then recovered (my MC has this, so I was a little worried!). Others were flashbacks, animal narrators, no chapters, dream sequences presented as reality.

So, what makes you cringe? (It would be interesting to ask your target agent this, wouldn't it?)



Jun 24th

Emptying the Nest: Rinse and Repeat

By Caducean Whisks

I’ve been a fox foster mum for seven weeks now and have learnt a lot. 

My second set moved on yesterday and left me reflective. Time to take stock. 


I’ve been a volunteer rescuer for seventeen years and this cub season, offered to look after some orphan youngsters and prepare them for life in the wild as best as I could. And so a pen was built in my garden and my first set of five moved in, blogged here: http://writing-community.writersworkshop.co.uk/magazine/read/the-pitter-patter-of-tiny-paws_9608.html 


I didn’t know the backstory of my first clan, but I do now: 

Seems a lady somewhere had discovered tiny cubs under an upturned wheelbarrow in her garden. Called the council to get rid of them; council called the Fox Project. 

FP said the vixen had probably left them there temporarily, since they were too squirmy to walk there by themselves. Likely their mother had feared for their safety at Place A, got them out quickly and was searching for Place B; when she’d found it, she’d come back. She’d done her best in an emergency, putting them somewhere out of sight, in the shade, while she scouted for a better home. 

FP said if the woman could just wait, they’d disappear all by themselves and the family would be reunited, no harm done. But the woman was adamant. They had to be gone; now. They were vermin (No they’re not: only Defra has the power to declare ‘vermin’ and they have never done so for foxes). 

She claimed to have been a nurse and treated ‘hundreds of people for fox-related diseases.’ 

Like what? Myself and other people at FP have handled (mostly sick) foxes for decades and none of us have ever caught anything. We’ve all had much closer contact with them than the rest of the human populace and we’re all fine. 

The woman would not be moved, but after a prolonged conversation, agreed they could bring the cubs back at 8:30 that night and if the mother appeared, she could reclaim them. 

What if the vixen didn’t come exactly at 8:30? Tough. That’s the window. Take it or leave it. 

And so FP took the cubs back at 8:30.

‘You’re too late,’ said the woman. ‘The fox came at 6:30. Dug up all my garden, turned over all my pots.’ 

Yes. She was looking for her babies. 

It was February; late, dark and cold. The cubs couldn’t be left out with no one to watch over them.

And so the FP had no choice but to take the cubs into their care. Cubs orphaned for no good reason because of the intransigence of one human; and a mother who’d tried to keep her babies safe but lost them. She’d be full of maternal hormones and milk with no one to drink it and she’d likely develop mastitis. Tragedy all round. 

The babies didn’t come to me straight away, but when they did, they’d been paired up with a couple more orphans and were nearly grown. 

Tipping them out into my pen, they were nervous, frightened. Sad though it seems, this is a healthy response. I left them alone as much as I could. Fed them, changed their water, cleaned up. I never ever touched them; as soon as I entered the pen, they’d disappear - behind the bedroom box, inside the box, as far away from me as possible. Occasionally I had to open the box to check I still had five cubs alive and well, and they’d cower, cuddled up together with Teddy and a branch that had been dragged in. Good. 

How to entertain them, stimulate them? They did relax around me somewhat, but they were bored. Not learning any foxy ways.

I’d noticed they’d tried to bury food I’d given them - a normal fox response to cache food for later. 

I’d already given them pruned branches to play in, and then a brainwave - a big bowl of earth they could dig in and explore. A cardboard box they could investigate and rip to shreds. Dried leaves and twigs. Simple things that smelt of foxes and possibly reminded them of their early lives. 

They lounged around in the bowl of earth, tumbled in and out of the boxes. Played tag among the branches. All good skills for their later hunting lives. 

But one huge thing I learned: despite my earlier assertion that they’d eat anything - and they did - wheat-based foods gave them diarrhoea. Foxes with gluten intolerance? Seems so. Who’d have thought. It only occurred to me because I have a lactose intolerant chicken. So out went the pasta, the bread and in came more dog food. 

Have to say that diarrhoea is grim at the best of times. Multiply it by five in a confined space when they can’t get away. Add the smell. I didn’t enjoy cleaning up that. Not one little bit. 

I clear chicken poo all the time and don’t mind that so much. Vegetarian poo is different to carnivore poo. If you’ve ever changed diets, you’ll have noticed. It has a firmer structure, less runny. Smells of farmyards. Not so unpleasant. Not that I’d want to dab it behind my ears, but you know what I mean. 

This led me to investigate the contents of dog food. I was shocked to see that it’s only about 4% animal anyway. Mostly cereal. So you think your dog is a carnivore? Technically it’s more of a vegetarian than most dog owners. 

You know how much the eat? Tons. Think one dog. Times by five.

So I ferreted around for food they’d be more likely to encounter in the wild. Meat and fish. 

Pigs’ ears, they loved. Bones from the butcher? Tripe? Tongue? Liver and kidneys? Yes please and YUM. 

I drew the line at chicken. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. 

I’d have given them roadkill if I’d found any, but I didn’t. 

I was a single mother with fifteen kids to support, each with different needs. My life began to revolve around dog food.


My wild foxes came to investigate the new arrivals. Each time, the cubs would cluster on the wire, up on their hind legs, little tails wagging. Whimpering. As the wild foxes circled the pen, the kids would leap and bound from viewpoint to viewpoint so they could keep them in sight as long as possible. It felt like children at an orphanage, lined up for the perusal of prospective parents. ‘Choose me! Choose me!’

They grew, were going stir crazy with confinement, and it was time for the next stage of their rehab - a release pen about fifty miles away. (See previous blog for details of this.) 

And so they were boxed up - with Teddy - and taken away in the wildlife ambulance. Even though my interaction with them had been minimal and it was a Good Thing, I felt surprisingly mournful. And more and more angry with the stupid woman who’d caused all this time and expense and trouble and misery, because she couldn’t put up with them in her garden for a few hours. All of this - all of it - was entirely avoidable.


First group all grown up. Being boxed up to go: 


I cleaned my empty nest. No getting away from it, twas a horrid job. Shovelled, scrubbed it out, washed it down. Nevertheless, I was surprised how much I missed my kids. I hope they do well; wild and free. 


The woodwork was barely dry before my next set of kids arrived. 

These were a whole different kettle of cubs. Far too tame already (IMHO). They explored with confidence, approached, looked up at me with expectant eyes. 

They had been a family of five - a natural family - but in their previous foster home, there’d been some rough and tumble and one had had her ear bitten off. The ear wasn’t found; presumed eaten. The suspected bully had been removed from the group, so they were only four. 

I was told the problem was they didn’t share food and there’d been a squabble. No? I’ve never seen a fox that did share food and I’ve been watching them closely in my garden for decades. Adults share with cubs, but among equals? No. It’s every fox for himself. This is one of the main behavioural differences between foxes and wolves. No cooperation. Sure they live in extended family groups, but they don’t hunt as a pack. Several of them may watch as a fox stalks a pigeon, but when she catches it - on her own - she’s ambushed by the others, trying for an easy lunch. 

Anyway. Four foxes with seven ears arrived. 

They really were delightfully puppy-ish. Alert and eager, friendly and playful. And boisterous. And loud. 

None of them were mean or nasty and I came to the conclusion that the earlessness had been simply an accident. The invalid didn't seem the least bit bothered, and joined in everything going on. 

One of them was seriously OCD in that he’d jump from the floor to the top of the bedroom box to the wall, back to the box then the floor, and repeat. All. Day. Long. It seemed a stress response, like a bear pacing in a zoo. I put some calming things in their water, and over the days, things settled down. Interestingly whenever he was stressed, he’d start doing it again. 

Then the decision was made to remove the one without the ear and send her to bootcamp to be toughened up, and return the villain to the family. They weren’t sure they had the right one, anyway. 

So they swapped over. The siblings recognised their missing brother with joy, and it was a pity the sister was removed, but there we are. Spreading the gene pool at least. 

This newly assembled gang of four seemed to have boundless energy and ate me out of house and home. I kept the dog food and biscuits to a minimum, as I found the same thing with diarrhoea. Cheese they liked as a snack, and apple. I found gluten-free dog biscuits. But best of all was raw or dried meat and offal and fish. 

I honestly did nothing to encourage them, but they became more and more tame. They’d watch me in the garden with the chickens, call, cluster at the door when I entered, run out into the porch and clamber over all my supplies. They’d jump up to see what I had in my hand and nibble my fingers. 

Only me, note. Any visitors and they’d shrink away. At least that was proper fox behaviour. 

Their boisterous larks continued - play-fighting, tumbling, chewing branches, banging metal food bowls. And squealing. 

Only one of them - the largest - remained a scaredy-fox and spent twenty-three hours a day hiding in the bedroom. When I came to dish out food, his head would poke out and I’d throw some his way. The head would reach out only far enough to get it, then he’d retreat with his prize into the darkness of his safe home.

Then the Fox Project arrived on my doorstep with another cub - Alana - that they wanted to add to my group to make five. She’d fallen down a twenty-foot hole, been there all night, and been rescued the next morning. She’d been checked over, nothing major wrong, but was quiet and withdrawn; they hoped my rowdy lot would ginger her up. 

The existing residents welcomed her, swished their tails and sniffed her. ‘Hello, what’s your name? Wanna play?’

Alana curled up in a corner and kept herself to herself. I left her alone to settle in. 

As the day wore on, she barely moved. I became concerned; checked once or twice that she wasn’t dead. 

The others lost interest in her; she was no fun.

It came to dinnertime. She didn’t even open an eye for food. I threw some dog biscuits near her, hoping to raise interest. This backfired, as it startled her and she fled behind the bedroom box, hidden out of sight. 

I went out again later, to see if she was all right. The others were racing round, full of beans. They raced round and round the bedroom, chasing each other. Trampling Alana in the process. Not nastily; as though she’d ceased to exist, and just become a bouncy cushion. Heavens, she wasn’t even a squeaky toy.

They stopped as I entered, and looked up, expectant, panting. 

I reached down and pulled off one, no two foxes from the heap and found Alana at the bottom. 

I shouldn’t have been able to pull them off, incidentally. I should have been bitten. They were far too comfortable around me. 

I picked up Alana, by now very worried, and got some medicine in her mouth. She didn’t resist (also worrying) and wee-ed all down me. 

It was just before 9pm, when the Fox Project knock off. 

I phoned them, told them what had happened: something was very wrong with Alana and I wasn’t sure she’d last the night. 

They came to get her. 11pm, and someone came out to collect a poorly fox and take her to the Wildlife Hospital. 

As an aside, earlier that day a neighbour had also brought me a woodpecker that had flown into their window and had a bent-up neck. I’d given it some R&R, and since the FP driver was going to the hospital anyway, she took the woodpecker along with the fox. Such kindness. 

The next day, Alana saw the vet. There was nothing physically wrong with her at all. The vet diagnosed depression. Depression! Again, who’d have thought. 

She’d had such a traumatic experience - falling down a deep hole, staying there all night, lost her mum and whole family, been penned up, driven about in scary vehicles, jumped all over by playful strangers - no wonder she was miserable. Would her nightmare never end?

No wonder she’d shut down, just wanted to curl up and hope the world went away. 

So I learned another new thing. Depression - PTSD even - in a wild animal. But why not? If the reverse had happened to a human child and they’d suddenly been thrust into an alien world, they’d be upset, too. 

Alana will be kept safely a few more days until a quieter group can be found for her. Perhaps she could go in with an older vixen, a surrogate mum. From my own observations, girls stay with their mothers all their lives and bring up their children communally; it’s the boys who roam.


Back to my hooligans.

Whilst they were delightful fun, pretty as anything, curious, lively and happy, they were too comfortable around me. And - crucially - extremely noisy at night. 

Bangs and crashes and shrieks and squeals. We’re in the middle of a heatwave. They woke me at 4:30am and I went out to quieten them as best I could. And looked around at all the open windows: neighbours trying to sleep. 

I began to worry that someone would report me to the council, that I’d be shut down. At the very least, their good-natured shenanigans weren’t winning any friends for foxes; and wild animals need all the friends they can get in an urban environment.

And so I made a tough decision and yesterday, my kids went to another site for their own good, more remote where they can scream as loudly as they like, pending the availability of a release pen. 

Despite the poo, the mayhem, the time and money spent constantly sourcing food and stimulation for them, I’m surprised how much I miss their cheery little faces. They’d learned to trust me, to be happy when I showed up and wag their tails. They let me pick them up, bare-handed, one by one, and place them in a travelling cage. By rights they should have fought me, bitten me. Struggled. 

The last one in, I wished them a nice life. A good life. 

They looked at me through the wire. Puzzled, uncomprehending, fearful. I felt terrible. As though I’d betrayed them somehow. I want them to go wild. To have the life they should be having. They’re not pets. I didn’t think I’d get attached. I know I shouldn’t. I tried not to. 

But I did. 

I had to run back to the car to pass on the forgotten bag of manky teddies. And remind the driver that they hadn’t had dinner yet and would be hungry. 


Not sure I’ll do it next cub season, but I agreed to continue for this season so I will.


Next batch arrive on Sunday (cripes, that’s tomorrow). The pen needs digging out and my compost heap is already the size of Everest. Not looking forward to that, no Sir. It might snap me out of this maudlin mood. It’s quite nice to have peace and quiet and gently clucking chickens and songbirds once more.


Fostering is hard, you know. Like it or not, two-way bonds are formed. It’s emotionally draining when your nest empties, time and time again. I didn’t expect this. 


Second group boxed up to move on: 








Jun 24th


By mike

    Last saturday, a small London theatre was transformed into a Philadelphian  nightclub and, with the aid of a jazz trio, Billy Holliday recalled her life.

     Philip Larkin’s  prop had been a bottle of whisky; Sir John Betjeman’s had been half a bottle of red wine and Billy Holliday’s -  glasses of gin and water.

     Where does my aunt Kathleen fit into this scenario?  She wrote poems for tiny tots   and dispensed mugs and tea bags  - and biscuits for dunking.   I suppose a village hall could provide a tea urn!

    This is not as daft as you might suppose.  There are two English musicals on the London stage.  One is a musical based around the film ‘The Calendar Girls’ and the other concerns tap dancing in a village hall. (I have not seen this)

    Kathleen has ticked all the boxes for this particular audience.

     It seems there is now a genre -  a stage blueprint - for Kathleen’s life which can be subverted. There has to be an actor who can create empathy with the audience, and songs or poems around which events can be constructed.  But this is hypothetical as I have never worked in the theatre and kept the day job.

     But this is a bit like my attempt to edit a grandfather’s novel -  arguing that is is a minor classic of gothic romance - even to the extent of  his inventing a minor sub genre.  I doubt it this would be of concern to the publishing world.


     The blues is not a particular interest of mine though I do like the blues and jazz piano. I am post hippy and pre-punk.  In England, the blues belonged to my brother’s generation and John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers.  But I cannot recall female blues singers being much played at the time.  In  the play, Billy Holliday claims to sing jazz but she also sings two songs made famous by Bessie Smith.  But perhaps the female singers were as well known as the men, and my memory is at fault.   The play about Billy Holliday was written in  2014.

   The theatre is probably not for me any more, as the plays are now  produced for a different, much younger generation and all references are to a pop culture and celebs.   A few mondays ago, I headed to the theatre to see if I could get a day seat for a Terence Rattigan play.  Being somewhat dim, I had not checked, and the play was not performed on mondays.  Walking round the theaters, I noticed a production of‘The Bat out of Hell’ was on at the ENO - the home of the English National Opera, so I got a seat in the Gods and attended the first night.  From the staging and story - a bit Gothic romance with hairy bikers - you would think the show for a young audience.   But, around me, in the Gods,  much of the audience were middle aged or  or over.  But I am no good at ages.  The Globe is now a pop venue and the shows  are aimed at a different audience.   I see nothing wrong with this as the Globe is always full and the audience enjoy the shows.

   It is very confusing.  The hottest tickets in town have been for two Albee plays.  ‘The Goat’ and ‘Whose afraid of Virginia Wolf.’   I think  it quite possible that they are staged in such a way that Albee might have seen a similar production!

Jun 22nd

Editorial critique for #authorsforgrenfell

By Andrew

Bid for an editorial critique from me for #authorsforgrenfell - here is a link to my offer, and there are lots of other critiques and agent lunches and signed copies and other bookish giveaways too. 



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