2022 marks the 1,900th anniversary of the Emperor Hadrian’s visit to Britannia and the start of the northern frontier upgrade from earth and bank defence to stone wall. The Wall marks the fall back line beyond which no raids by Caledonian tribes would be tolerated. But more than that, it was a grand imperial statement that boasted of the might of the Roman Empire that came with a statement of intent: “You’d better get used to us as we’re here to stay.”
But the life of Hadrian’s Wall as a frontier barrier lasted for only another 280 years, abandoned by Rome around the year 410 – the year Rome itself was sacked by the Visigoths.
I visited Hadrian’s Wall in September 2020 and was inspired to write my own story of frontier life in the heyday of the Roman Empire, choosing the final days of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in the year 180 C.E. My hero is Centurion Gaius Atticianus of the VI Legion, a real figure whose name is engraved on an altar stone excavated at Whitley Castle – once the Roman fort of Epiacum. I have imagined his story and struggle to survive in the harsh Northumbrian climate. I also wanted to showcase the work of archaeologists in uncovering and breathing new life into our understanding of Roman Britain, so I settled on a dual timeline story that flips from a contemporary tale to the life of Gaius in alternating chapters.
Guardians at the Wall is a dual timeline historical novel set at Hadrian’s Wall in which archaeologists uncover artefacts that connect them to the life of a Roman centurion in second century Britannia.
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My 2021 novel, Guardians at the Wall, is a work of fiction, inspired by an inscription on a Roman artefact discovered in 1803 at Whitley Castle in Cumbria, once the Roman fort of Epiacum. Following a visit to five Hadrian’s Wall museums located at fort sites in 2020, I became so intrigued by the work of archaeologists to uncover and piece together a narrative of how the Roman occupiers lived that I resolved to write my novel as a dual timeline with an archaeology story intertwined with the story of a Roman soldier during the occupation.
The main character in the contemporary thread is archaeology student Noah Jessop. In Noah’s presentation, he refers to three mentions he found of Centurion Gaius Atticianus. Of these three, two are fictitious and the true one is the dedication on an altar stone. In the Roman Inscriptions of Britain archives, there is an entry for an altar pedestal stone inscription, dedicated to the god Hercules. The translation reads: ‘To the god Hercules Gaius Vitellius Atticianus centurion of the Sixth Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis’
This altar stone (sketch from http://www.romaninscriptionsofbritain.org) now resides at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in Bedford. From this, I’ve taken my character, Gaius Vitellius Atticianus of the VI Legion Victrix Pia Fidelis (‘the victorious, loyal and faithful Sixth Legion’), and imagined his story, including the invented burial of a payroll chest. One real event is included in the narrative; the burning down of Corbridge/Coria town in 180 or 181, thought to have been in an attack by Caledonian raiders from north of Hadrian’s Wall. 180 is also the year that Emperor Marcus Aurelius died – memorable depicted in the opening scenes of the movie, ‘Gladiator’. Two of my named Roman officers are also real, plucked from mentions in inscriptions on monuments or in surviving records, namely Legate of the VI Legion, Claudius Hieronymianus (between 190-212 C.E. – I liked the name so I placed him in office as a young political appointee, nine years earlier); and Tribune Publius Helvius Pertinax (VI Legion, 170s). Great names that deserve to live on. Further reading revealed that Pertinax retired to Rome after a long career as a provincial administrator, only to be persuaded out of retirement in the wake of the murder of Emperor Commodus by the Praetorian Guard. His short reign was the first three months of 193. He was murdered in turn and replaced by another candidate in the tumultuous Year of the Five Emperors.
My story of Noah and the archaeologists is fiction, although the settings are real. Both the Vindolanda Trust and English Heritage are registered trusts under UK law, and manage functioning museums situated at the sites of part-excavated Roman ruins. English Heritage manage many sites on Hadrian’s Wall, including the fascinating Corbridge Roman Town, Housesteads (near the much-photographed Sycamore Gap), and the beautifully located Chesters fort, baths and Victorian era museum in the grounds of the Clayton family estate.
The Vindolanda Trust has an ongoing archaeological dig, started in the 1930s by owner Eric Birley, and continued by his son, Robin, who in 1973 oversaw the discovery of the Vindolanda tablets. Vindolanda remains with the Birley family beyond 1970 when the Vindolanda Trust was founded, with Dr Andrew Birley as the current Chief Executive Officer. Many wonderous finds, including the tablets, can be seen in the onsite museum. Because peat contains very little oxygen, organic materials like wood, leather and textiles do not rot. They can survive for thousands of years, preserved by the stable anoxic chemistry of the soil.
I visited these places in September 2020, between Covid-19 lockdowns, and the idea for this story came to me shortly after, whilst I was blogging about my visits. I saw for myself the Gladiator drinking bowl or tankard (passed around by Gaius and his mates in chapter two and featured in miniature on the book cover) and was awe-struck by the Vindolanda tablets and the details of the inscriptions on the information cards. The whole museum is fascinating, as are the grounds. I was extremely grateful to escape the confines of my home for three glorious days in the fresh, Northumberland air. In January 2021, whilst in the midst of writing, I enjoyed watching Robson Green’s television series, Walking Hadrian’s Wall. I note that Mr Green is a Patron of the Vindolanda Trust, and his visit to meet with his ‘old mate’, Andrew Birley, was both fascinating and timely.
The novel’s title, Guardians at the Wall, came to me once I’d sketched out the plots of each timeline strand. The Roman and auxilliary soldiers stood guard at the Wall for over 200 years, but the current generation of guardians are the archaeologists, curators and historians who strive to expose the past and make it live on in public consciousness – a part of our history and cultural identity. In the novel I talk of a Combined Universities dig at Vindolanda. This is made up. There are no combined universities digs that I know of, but there are archaeology degree courses offered by Durham and Newcastle Universities, with fieldwork practicals.
The novel’s action is set at Hadrian’s Wall, one of Britain’s World Heritage sites. When finished, Hadrian’s wall stretched 117 km (73 imperial miles) from sea to sea. It stood about 5 meters (15 ft.) high and 3 meters (10 ft.) wide. The core consisted of packed earth and clay and the sides were faced with blocks of stone. There may have been intermittent platforms on top of some stretches of the wall between watchtowers and mile forts, where auxiliary sentries kept watchful eyes on the north lands. The wall was a highly visible symbol of the Roman Empire’s might and prodigious activity at the peak of its power and dominance. Now, barely 10% of Hadrian’s Wall remains in place, and its stone blocks have been pilfered over the centuries to build dry stone walls, buildings and even an entire village of over 300 dwellings called ‘Wall’.
2022 is a big anniversary year for Hadrian’s Wall, marking 1,900 years since the Emperor Hadrian ordered its construction during his visit in 122 C.E. At the time of writing, the Hadrian’s Wall Partnership Group are planning a number of events to mark the anniversary. Year-long activities based at or near Hadrian’s Wall, including online events, can be found listed at the Hadrian’s Wall Country website.
Guardians at the Wall is a 90,000 word novel available from Amazon in the following formats:
Guardians at the Wall is the new dual timeline historical novel from Tim Walker, published in June 2021. I’m sharing this thoughtful review by multi-genre author Colin Garrow…
At Hadrian’s Wall, a group of archaeology students explore the area close to the ancient ruins, searching for buried artefacts left by the Romans while guarding the barrier separating Roman Britain from the Caledonian tribes. Twenty-year-old Noah is delighted to discover a figurine, and hopes it’ll put him in good stead with the enigmatic Professor Wilde as he researches material for his dissertation. Meanwhile, in the year 180 CE, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, strives to keep his men safe while negotiating more cordial relationships with marauding tribesmen.
The story segues between the modern-day dig and the Roman occupation, charting the progress of the heroes on each side. Surprisingly, the Roman narrative had a more realistic feel to it than the modern-day one, but that’s not to take anything away from the author’s skill in twisting the two stories together.
For me, the most interesting parts were those of the centurion as he deals with his men, his family and the constant threat of battle. However, the way Tim Walker entwines the stories of Noah and Gaius Atticianus is well done and creates an interesting interchange between the historical facts and the archaeologists searching for the truth behind the treasure they unearth.
A fascinating and realistic book that mixes fiction with an evocative picture of Roman life in Britain.
In June 2021, author Tim Walker published his latest novel – a dual timeline historical novel, Guardians at the Wall. The novel consists of two parallel stories, of equal weight, each with a main character or protagonist. They are both men, based at the same location (Vindolanda at Hadrian’s Wall), but that is all they have in common. Each story is set in different periods, one contemporary, the other almost two thousand years earlier in Roman Britain.
Modern day character profile
Name: Noah Jessop
Age: 20 years (story duration – 9 months)
Height: slightly above average, 5’ 9”
Hair: ash blond collar-length often uncombed.
Face: narrow, unblemished, clean-shaved or 2-3 days blond stubble
Build: Slim, not athletic.
Clothes: Light blue slim fit jeans, an oversized crew neck grey jumper, standard black Adidas trainers.
Personality: he is reserved until familiar with people and surroundings, then quite self-assured. He is thoughtful and studious, enjoying his classical and archaeology studies. His boyish good looks and shy first impression attract women who want to mother him.
Appearance: Has been described as handsome, with Robert Redford-ish looks and a warm and welcoming smile. He knows he’s good looking and has no problem finding girlfriends and is comfortable in the company of women.
Hobbies/interests: Enjoys watching action movies, console war gaming with his mates, pub nights out, maybe the occasional kick about…
Family/issues/development: Middle class family in a northern (Durham) county town His mother died when he was very young and he misses her close attention. He did not easily accept his stepmother when his father remarried. This has caused abandonment issues and may explain his predilection for an older woman. He’s developed a lot since being at Uni. He was previously very sheltered and introverted but has since come out of his shell. The relationship with his ex-girlfriend was positive while it lasted, but they met when they were both young and emotionally immature. Essentially, they were still ‘children’ and during their time at Uni they grew in different directions (hence the fizzling out). He is motivated to get a good degree in archaeology as a means to forging a career as an archaeologist or archivist.
Roman character profile
Name: Gaius Vitellius Atticianus
Age: 41 – 45 (story duration – 4 years)
Height: Short, 5’
Hair: Dark brown, coarse and wavy, cut to collar length.
Face: round and weathered, dry and lined skin, clean shaven
Eyes: Dark brown
Build: Stocky and muscular.
Clothes: Roman military uniform from second century. Allowed woollen leggings in winter and foot enclosed in leather ankle boots. Woollen socks and undershirt, chainmail vest, leather belt and leather skirt strips, shoulder armour, red plumed centurion’s helmet, sword scabbard hung from a cross-shoulder strap. Red woollen cloak clipped to shoulder guards. Forearm and shin metal armour held with leather straps.
Personality: Gaius was raised on a farm in Asturia (Galicia, N.W. Spain) and has simple, family-centric, provincial values. His wife is from a Briton tribe. He is honest and trustworthy, intelligent and literate. He was promoted through the ranks to optio and centurion on merit, is courageous, loyal and respected by his men. He enjoys a drink of ale or wine when off duty, but has no relish for the brothel or gambling. He loves his wife, Aria, is faithful, and looks forward to getting home to her and their young son, Brutus, when off duty.
Issues/worries: Gaius has a young family but he is in his early 40’s, and hopes to live to see his retirement at the age of 45. He is courageous and leads from the front in battle, but becomes wary and more cautious as he nears retirement age. He is not afraid for himself, but dreams of a small farmstead on a retired soldier’s colony where he can settle his wife and son. This is his dream and his motivation.
Grey skies and a light drizzle reflected his mood and did little to allay the fear that clenched in his stomach. With a sigh he entered a cobbled lane, leaning on his walking stick as the cramps stabbed at his ankles and feet like demons with sharp needles. Above him shop signs creaked and groaned on rusty hinges and the upper floors of aging properties crowded in, dimming the light and slowing his progress. Homeless people and assorted beggars sat in doorways and alleyways, crying out to passers-by for help. Stopping halfway to catch his breath, George bent to talk to a homeless man cowering under a blanket.
“What’s caused you to be on the streets, my friend?” he asked.
The man shifted and sat upright, sensing an opportunity. “Good day to you, sir. I have lost my job and been evicted from my lodgings. Times are hard. Can you spare some coin?” he rattled a chipped mug at George.
Dropping a coin in, George asked him, “How much further to the courts?”
“Top of the lane and turn right, follow the shadow of the castle walls to the square and you’ll see it to your left.” He peered at the hunched figure before him, leaning on a stick to stay upright. “Are you summoned to the witch trials?”
George stood as upright as he could manage, stretching his back. “Is that what they are called? I’m one of those summoned to appear for examination. Suspicion and distrust stalk our troubled land. Good luck to you.”
With that, George continued his uncomfortable journey towards the rectangle of daylight at the top of the lane. Here he rested whilst taking in the imposing sight of the castle walls – tall, majestic and grey, built to command and dominate the subdued town. The cries of beggars mixed with the shouts of street traders hawking their wares, as the wealthier citizens drove by, unconcerned and cocooned in their conveyances. At the town square he saw a sign for the courts on a granite building and headed towards it. Each step brought pain as pins-and-needles shot up his shins, forcing him to rock from side-to-side, like a ship in a storm, in a forlorn attempt to find relief.
He joined a line of dejected folk in the overheated reception area, shuffling forward to check in for their appointments.
“Go to the end of this corridor,” the unsmiling receptionist said, “to where it says, ‘Work Capability Assessments’ and take a seat. You’ll be called.”
A ceiling mounted cctv camera swept the waiting area, adding to his sense of foreboding. George looked away from it and retreated into his own thoughts, reflecting on his predicament. He had been a maintenance engineer with a global company until, as a result of mounting absences, he had been retired at fifty-nine on the grounds of ill health. Poor circulation compounded by nerve damage in the extremities of his limbs was slowly reducing him to a hunched invalid. It was not reversable and would worsen over time, his GP had told him, prescribing medication to ease the symptoms and give some relief from nagging pain. Now his status as ‘medically unfit for work’ was being challenged under new Government welfare reforms.
His name was called after half an hour and he was ushered through steel security doors into a white-walled corridor with a dozen rooms off it.
“I’ll be assessing you today,” said a sombre brown-haired man in glasses, probably twenty years his junior. He wore a white coat but looked more lab assistant than medical professional.
“Are you a doctor?” George asked, whilst seating himself and laying his walking stick on the worn and curling carpet squares.
“I’m not obliged to identify myself today, Mister Osborne. I’m your Government-appointed assessor. Firstly, can you confirm your full name, address and national insurance number?”
George duly replied, and then answered a series of questions about his condition and what medication he was taking. Could he dress himself? Could he prepare a meal? How far could he walk? The questions followed one after the other and George’s responses were noted.
“And how did you get here today, Mister Osborne?”
“How far would you say it is from the stop where you alighted?”
“About a hundred and fifty yards, give or take.”
“Thank you.” He tapped away on the computer keyboard for a minute.
“Now I’d like to give you a physical examination. Can you please sit on the couch?” He asked George to raise his arms, bend backwards and forwards, rotate his head and lift his legs. When satisfied he instructed George to return to his chair whilst he sat at his desk, typing notes and squinting at his screen. George stared at the peeling paint on the ceiling for a while.
“Thank you, Mister Osborne. Please return to the waiting area and we will let you know the outcome of your assessment in approximately thirty minutes.”
“As soon as that? Alright then.” George picked up his stick and made his way gingerly to the waiting room.
He sat next to a young man with callipers on his legs and a mother who caressed his arm. An anxious woman was pacing up and down the narrow space between the rows of plastic bucket seats, mumbling and scratching her head, causing a man in a wheelchair to back up and concede precious space to her. Opposite him was a row of silent, pensive faces of young, middle aged and elderly men and women. Most shuffled or limped to the heavy security door when their names were called. The turnover was quite quick – one in every five to ten minutes. Maybe a dozen assessors…
“Mister Osborne.” His thoughts were curtailed and he pushed himself up with his stick. Through the door again, but this time a turn to the left and into a bigger room where a panel of two men and one woman sat at a table, facing a solitary chair. George was directed to sit and answered the security questions to confirm his identity.
An elderly man with thinning grey hair sat in the middle looked up from his notes and spoke. “Mister Osborne, we have assessed your capability to work and found you to be fit. This means your claim for sickness benefits will be closed as of today, and should you wish to make a fresh claim for Job Seekers Allowance then you must report to your nearest Job Centre in the morning. Is there anything you’d like to say?”
“Erm… yes. This is quite a shock… As you must know from my record I was retired from work on the grounds of incapacity, and my doctor is treating me for severe pains in my hands, legs and feet. Can you elaborate on what you mean by ‘fit for work’?”
The woman on the panel chose to answer. “Your assessment tells us that you were able to walk more than one hundred yards from the bus stop to this centre, that you could walk into the room without being helped, could sit still for more than ten minutes, understand and answer questions put to you, and pass a rudimentary physical examination…”
“I stopped twice to catch my breath. It took me over thirty minutes to get here. And as for passing a physical,” George blurted, “I could barely raise my arm!”
The second man answered, “But you COULD raise your arm and you DID make it here, Mister Osborne. That is the point.”
“On painful and swollen feet, with pins-and-needles shooting up my legs. I get breathless quickly when walking. My doctor has told me to keep off my feet as much as possible…”
“Nevertheless,” the senior man interrupted, “you are found to be capable of doing some work. If you want to continue receiving benefits then you must report to the Job Centre.” The three of them simply stared at him, indicating the meeting was over. George shook his head and slowly stood.
“Is there an appeals process?” he asked from the door.
“There is, via the Job Centre, but you must first convince them you are eligible,” came the terse reply. George now understood the procession of unhappy faces that had gone before him.
As he left the building a young woman approached and smiled as she offered him a leaflet. “Hi, my name’s Amy and I’m from a charity that gives advice and support to chronically ill and disabled people who have been miraculously declared fit for work,” she cheerfully said. It was the first smile George had seen all day, and he attempted a grin in response.
“Well, I might need some advice after that. My feet ache and my head’s spinning.”
“You’re not alone. Most of those who attend are declared fit for work, including people with severe physical disabilities and mental health problems. Under the new guidelines you have to be wholly unresponsive and not able to sit still to be in with a chance of remaining on sickness benefits. We advise you to sign on for Job Seekers Allowance so your income is not cut off and then come to our office. I know it’s a shock, but don’t despair – we can help.”
George made his way home in concerned silence. He had worked for thirty years without much time off for illness or injury and had been led to believe that in his time of need the State would support him. He had been cruelly disappointed. He made a sandwich and took his medication with a glass of orange squash. Then he retired to his room for a nap. This was now part of his new daily routine.
At six o’clock the door slammed shut and his son, Derrick, appeared at the bedroom door.
“How did it go, Dad?”
George sat up and wandered into the lounge, describing his experience as he went. Sitting in his favourite armchair he added, “I’ve hardly ever missed work for sickness and now they’re making me feel like a fraud or a work-shy loafer.”
“These Government cuts are painful for a lot of people, Dad,” Derrick replied. “It’s always those at the bottom of the pile who are made to suffer. Don’t take it personally.”
“It is personal, son,” George moaned. “Now my best hope for fair treatment is this charity.” He showed Derrick the leaflet. Derrick turned it over in his hands and shrugged. “Cup of tea?”
The following day George made his way to the Job Centre and was interviewed by a disinterested youth. “You have to make a contract with the Government to spend at least thirty-five hours a week looking for work, and be prepared to take any work that your adviser deems to be suitable,” the young man intoned. George followed the advice of the woman from the charity and signed the form, knowing that he was no longer capable of reporting to a place of work on successive days or of staying the course for six or seven hours a day.
“Can I take part-time work?” he asked.
“You can, but there are few about, and hourly rates are poor, as employers and organisations prefer full-time staff.”
Derrick had found out where the charity offices were located and given him written instructions on how to get there. It involved another bus ride to a different part of town. George arrived at the building – it was a converted house – and rang the doorbell. A man peered through a crack in the door.
“A woman called Amy gave me this leaflet and advised me to come here,” George said.
“Then come in,” the man replied, opening the door wide and stepping to one side. Please wait in the lounge and I’ll call her.” George glanced at the noticeboard as he passed and noted leaflets for various support services on display. In the lounge, all the chairs and sofas were pushed back against the wall, like a dentist’s waiting room, and a coffee table occupied the middle of the carpet space, covered with magazines and empty mugs. About half the seats were taken with an odd assortment of unhappy people who appeared to be from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds. Perhaps poverty and desperation were all they had in common, as there were no conversations taking place.
“Ah, hello again George,” Amy said brightly. “Come through to the kitchen and we’ll get a tea or coffee before we have a chat.” She had spiked blond hair and wore a blue mohair jumper, black jeans and baseball boots, like a punk rocker from the late seventies. George had been more of a progressive rock fan, back in the day.
“How did it go at the Job Centre?” she asked when they were seated in her tiny office.
“I found it to be a degrading and de-humanising experience. I’m a skilled tradesman of thirty years’ service, but now I’m treated with suspicion and made to feel like a scrounger. This capability assessment is designed to make you fail. Even the positioning of their centre on top of a hill next to the castle is well thought out – the enemy has to battle uphill.”
She regarded him with well-practiced, blue-eyed sympathy, her head cocked slightly to one side. “I know it’s hard, George, and many are suffering as a result of these Government cuts – more of a crack-down really. Nearly everyone is found ‘fit for work’ but on appeal over 65% of decisions are overturned. We’ll look into your grounds for appeal and help guide you through the system. You’ve been advised to set up an online account by the Job Centre, is that right?”
“Do you use the internet? Do you have wi-fi at home?”
“Erm, yes. I live with my son, Derrick. Just the two of us since my wife, Gloria, left us. He’s on it all the time, but I don’t use it much.”
“Well, I’m sure your son will support you through this. The most important thing is that you post a comment everyday saying what you’ve done that day to find work. I’ll set you up, and give you notes to take home. Your son can then show you how to post a comment. You need to follow their rules to the letter or they’ll sanction you…”
“What’s a ‘sanction’?”
“It’s when they stop your money. Usually if you are late or miss an appointment, or your work coach deems you are not doing enough to find a job. A lot of those downstairs have been sanctioned and have come here asking for a loan. Unfortunately, we can only help a few, so my advice is to follow their rules and turn up on time.” She sat back and smiled, as if this was a normal situation.
“I’ve never claimed anything from the State before I went onto sickness benefit, except child support for Derrick. This has all got my head swimming.”
“It’s affecting more and more people every day, Mister Osborne. Now please fill out this form and I’ll get you registered with us. Bums on seats helps us get more funding. We do a free lunch twice a week, by the way, on Mondays and Thursdays. You’re welcome to join us on those days.”
After a couple of weeks, George felt more at ease and had met a few of the regulars. He had also been to see his doctor and given her a copy of the assessment outcome that he had received in the post. Although she was unhappy and disturbed by the results, she was not able to do much more than offer to give him a sick note if he felt he couldn’t start a job that was too demanding. She asked about his moods and offered a prescription for anti-depressants. George refused, but asked for a more powerful dosage of painkillers as he was doing more walking than she had recommended and he would have liked.
After lunch at the drop-in, a fiery character with a chronic and degenerative condition named Paul asked him if he wanted to attend a meeting.
“A meeting to discuss what?”
“We’re planning to take part in a protest outside parliament against these work capability assessments.”
“I’ve never protested anything in my life. I’m a strict law and order type,” George replied, leaning back slightly as he caught a whiff of the red-haired youth’s sour breath.
“It’s part of a national protest and if the numbers are high enough it’ll get the attention of the international media. Why don’t you just come in and listen. No obligation.”
Two weeks later, George found himself on a train heading into central London in the company of his new drop-in mates. Derrick had finally talked him around and had even painted a board from him to take with the words, ‘Work Capability Assessment – Unfit and Failing’.
“I feel uncomfortable about this,” he whispered to Amy who sat next to him. “It feels like I’m doing something subversive.”
“Not at all George. It’s your right to protest against this unpopular and hostile Government who ignore their responsibilities to citizen welfare and dance to the tune of Big Business. They’re treating us like dirt, and it’s time we stood up and denounced it.”
“Or lean on a railing and denounce it,” George moaned. He noticed Paul and a group of friends standing in a closed group around a large hold-all, whispering conspiratorially. “I hope I don’t get dragged into anything illegal like damage to public property.”
“Don’t worry. It’s a peaceful protest involving over a dozen charities similar to ourselves from around the country. People are suffering, and it’s time we drew the nation’s attention to it.”
“Does anyone care? Those in work tend to take a dim view of those who don’t contribute to the economy.”
“That’s only because of Government propaganda that has divided our nation. Our economic woes are not the fault of the sick, poor and disabled. Rather, they are the fault of our capitalist system that allows the rich to get away without paying their fair share of taxes. Our world has become distorted by the greed, ambition and arrogance of a wealthy elite who have a firm grip on our political system and infuse our society with their odious values. It’s time for the little people to stand up to them in a way that we can’t through the ballot box.”
George was impressed. It was a view he had never considered before. He had spent his whole life buying into the shared values of a political system that encouraged home ownership, personal aspiration and wealth accumulation. Now he had been discarded by the system he had supported, and felt betrayed. They were now looking down on him with a smirk of disdain.
“I feel I’m on a very peculiar journey with all this, but I’m now a convert and fully supportive. It was never meant to be this way. Democracy is supposed to work for everyone.”
George stuck close to Amy as the crowds intensified as they approached Parliament Square. The noise levels increased as chanting of slogans began – he had never seen so many wheelchairs and mobility scooters in one place. Speakers took to a makeshift platform to give stirring speeches and soon the television cameras arrived. Soon it was Paul’s turn to climb onto the stage of wooden planks between railings, receiving whoops and enthusiastic applause from their drop-in group. His friends had wedged themselves behind him with the large hold-all they had dragged from the train. Paul appeared to be much bulkier than George remembered, wearing an oversized raincoat.
His stirring speech soon reached a climax and he held up his hands to hush the crowd.
“…I’m not against finding something to do to give the chronically ill and those with physical and mental impairments added purpose and motivation in their lives – but they should be activities that are not set against a profit-making target with a bullying manager standing over you. The answer is NOT to brutalise us through these demeaning capability assessments, stop our benefits as a sanction and then tell us to hustle in a low-paid gig economy with millions of fit, young and desperate adults. The capitalist mindset that controls our political agenda is producing a blame culture directed against those not deemed to be pulling their weight whilst generating wealth for the already filthy rich!”
Applause and jeering broke out, allowing Paul to catch his breath. “This must end. We need to put on our compassion goggles and come up with a fresh solution to assist the weakest members of our society in a humane and supportive way.”
Paul deemed the time was right and stepped back to thunderous applause. He unbuttoned his comedy coat, revealing what appeared to be a suicide bomb belt strapped around his body. The crowd gasped and backed away in consternation. George stood transfixed, keeping his eyes on Paul, who had taken off the coat and had a device with two metal cannisters strapped to his back, fitted by his friends. They then studiously withdrew, leaving Paul alone on the platform.
“Come on George, let’s move back,” Amy said, pulling his coat sleeve.
They retreated behind a hastily-erected police barrier and continued to watch Paul who now addressed himself directly to the television cameras.
“The culture of blaming the weakest members of society for its ills harks back to an earlier age of intolerance and exploitation. If dramatic action is required to get the people of this country to wake up and see the injustices all around them, then that’s what they’ll get. This is for the two thousand martyrs to capitalist oppression!”
He was holding trigger devices in both hands and seemed to be pressing the buttons. Screams went up from the hundreds gathered in the square as flashes of yellow flames shot downwards from the cannisters on his back. The intensity increased, and soon Paul lifted off the ground, like James Bond in ‘Thunderball’, propelled into the blue sky above Parliament. The jet pack took him up vertically and then he tilted forward and flew over Westminster Bridge, where he picked a spot to hover about a hundred feet above the River Thames, an equal distance from the banks and bridges. Pleasure boats and barges quickly moved out of the way as police launches sped to the scene.
“What’s he waiting for?” George shouted above the din. He and Amy pushed their way through the crowd to the Embankment wall and watched in horror. “Did you know he was going to do this?”
“Absolutely not!” Amy cried, gripping George’s arm. The police where shouting to him through a megaphone from a boat, but it was impossible to hear anything above the roar of the jet engines and the noise of the crowd. George estimated a thousand or more people had gathered on the south and north banks and along the length of the two bridges.
“If this is a stunt, it’s certainly got people’s attention…”
Just then there was a hiss and a splutter and the flames died out. Paul and his jet pack plummeted into the dirty brown water with a splash. Nothing came back to the surface. The assembled multitude of protestors, tourists and office workers gasped in horror as a police launch moved to the spot and officers looked helplessly at the opaque water. The muddy flow of the River Thames continued its journey to the sea, impassive, unresponsive, indifferent to the latest in a long history of human dramas. George took Amy’s arm for support and they burrowed through the crowd, moving downstream.
A pair of hands reached out of the dirty water and gripped the rope on the side of a tourist boat. Soon, they pulled a head out of the water, and shouts from the bank drew the attention of those onboard, who dragged the figure onto the deck. Paul coughed and vomited dirty river water as he was helped to a sitting position and wrapped in a blanket.
George and Amy barged their way through the crowd to a set of stone steps that went down to a landing stage. They hurried down as the pleasure boat docked, and Paul was escorted onto the jetty.
“We’ll take care of him,” George said, putting an arm around the soaked man. Amy took his other arm and they walked up the steps and melted into the crowd. The police had not seen this incident and were still searching on the river.
“Perhaps he should remain a martyr to the cause,” Amy said, as she hailed a taxi and gave the address of a charity she knew in central London. She slid the window to the driver shut and sat back.
“This is rather exciting,” George said in the back of the black cab, “I’m now a member of a seditious underground movement.”
Amy looked across the barely conscious Paul and replied, “Joking aside, George, I expect this will be all over the news, and we must think of ways to keep it there. A strong swell of public opinion in our favour is the only thing that can effect change.”
At the London homeless charity, George helped Paul remove his sodden clothing, and saw that what had looked like a suicide bomb vest was, in fact, a life jacket. Amy returned with a doctor to examine Paul, whom she described as ‘a homeless man who had unfortunately fallen in the river’. He was given antibiotics to ward off any possible infection, but otherwise was deemed to be fine. Amy found him some donated clothes to change into.
“You took a right ducking,” George said, handing Paul a mug of coffee.
Paul managed a grin. “Ah yes. Harking back to the ducking of witches. If you floated it was proof that you were a witch and you were then dragged out and burned at the stake. If you sank, then you were innocent, but most likely drowned anyway. A lose-lose scenario, I’d say.”
“Ah, but in your case, you sank but were buoyed up by a life vest, so you cheated the hangman, so to speak,” George replied.
“Innocent of being unwilling to work, I sank to the bottom, only to be returned to the surface by my life jacket. If I could travel back in time I’d take some life vests and pocket knives to the Middle Ages and set up a bureau advising witchcraft suspects on how to cut themselves free from the ducking stool and swim for their lives.”
“But what did you hope to achieve?” George asked.
Paul looked up and grinned through cracked lips. “They make you feel so small, so powerless through their constant bullying and harassment. I can’t do anything about my condition and I feel so much frustration. I just wanted to be in control for a moment, to be free of all the nastiness and to fly above them all…”
Amy had many friends at the charity who were wholly sympathetic to the protest. They all watched the repeats on a satellite news channel and began discussing ways to continue the protest. News reporters helped by giving the numbers of people who had been moved off sickness benefits by Government-employed private contractors, and the shocking statistic that over two thousand benefit claimants had committed suicide in the past few years as a response to having their money stopped. A hard-faced Government spokesman tried to deflect the questions asked by repeating a mantra about economic performance and high employment.
Soon a brainstorm list of possible actions had been made, and Amy tried to whittle it down to realistic actions. “If only we had an electrician on our team,” she mused, “then we could cut the power to the ruling party’s headquarters the next time they hold a meeting there.” She looked sideways at the quiet and thoughtful figure of George.
“Erm, yes. I’m an electrical engineer,” he sheepishly admitted.
“Well? Are you committed to our cause yet?” Amy asked.
All eyes were on George, the only sound a delivery scooter rattling down the lane outside. George sat straight, his hands on the table, meeting the stares of the expectant faces around him. “I’ll do it.”
The Superhero film genre is in overdrive at the moment, with at least one new movie every year. This year’s second superhero movie is ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ in a franchise that started in 2012 with ‘The Avengers’, bringing Marvel comic characters to life. This follows the quirky and successful ‘Black Panther’ (2018) that cleverly introduces a sub-genre element by showcasing mainly non-white actors, thus broadening the superhero genre appeal to different ethnic groups.
The recurring theme in this genre is not new – mankind is under threat from a terrifying external power and need heroes with superhuman powers to defend it. This storyline goes back to early human society when primitive man had an intuitive way of interpreting the awesome and incomprehensible power of nature. The animistic gods of the Ancients are often part-human/part-animal incarnations that represent the main elements – earth, water, air and fire, or aspects thereof. These were feared, revered and appeased with offerings and sacrifices in the hope of favourable outcomes or protection from the uncontrollable power of Nature.
It is no surprise that some ancient gods, most notably Thor from Norse mythology, have been incorporated into Marvel’s superhero stories. Although Thor is a god, he has human form and is the defender of mankind against ‘foreign’ enemies. They evoke familiar tribalistic defence mechanisms in an audience primed to circle the wagons at the first signs of danger from an unknown or unfamiliar predatory enemy.
The earliest human societies, pre-dating and including the recorded tales from Ancient Greece, invented creation stories that often involved superhuman god-like creatures who created the world and ruled over it in an age before the coming of Mankind. These gods became invisible forces to be invoked and appeased in ritual ceremonies as humans inherited the earth. It filled a powerful need in early Man’s consciousness to make sense of his surroundings, and pre-dates our Age of Science and Reason approach to understanding our world and beyond.
The blurb for the new superheroes movie reads, “’Avengers: Infinity War’ brings to the screen the ultimate, deadliest showdown of all time. As the Avengers and their allies have continued to protect the world from threats too large for any one hero to handle, a new danger has emerged from the cosmic shadows: Thanos. A despot of intergalactic infamy, his goal is to collect all six Infinity Stones, artifacts of unimaginable power, and use them to inflict his twisted will on all of reality. Everything the Avengers have fought for has led up to this moment – the fate of Earth and existence itself has never been more uncertain.”
The plot of this film centres on the concept of infinity or timelessness, through the infinity stones, or gems (six immensely powerful gems that appear in Marvel Comic stories known as the Mind, Soul, Space, Power, Time and Reality). This representation of attributes in physical objects harks back to ancient societies – objects to be revered or deified in the belief that they can affect desired outcomes. The stones are ancient artefacts, thus connecting the story to early human history and invoking the theme of the continuum of time.
Teenagers/Young Adults are the core target audience for this repeated narrative of humans with superpowers battling unknown or alien forces whose intentions are always hostile to human society. A show of destructive power by an evil character usually sets up the story, whereby one or more superhero will do battle, like gladiators, on behalf of a frightened and powerless population. Often the stakes are the highest imaginable – the fate of Planet Earth.
It is no surprise, then, that my own teenage daughter, Cathy, is thoroughly transfixed by superhero movies. She becomes engrossed in the latest story of heroic figures fighting on her behalf against external forces of evil who would destroy her home and family. She has no problem identifying with the ‘goodies’ – often male and female characters who represent ‘the best’ of humankind. When I asked her what our character, Charly Holmes’ next adventure should be, she quickly replied, “let’s make up a superhero story!”
And so, we have now completed our story – ‘Charly & The Superheroes’, based on Cathy’s idea that Charly, whilst on a film studio tour, is invited to substitute for a child actor in a superhero movie. The rest of the story developed from there. Our superheroes represent the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – but when a real disaster strikes, the actors are challenged to use their own knowledge and skills to help the group through a series of dangerous situations.
Our own homage to the superhero genre, ‘Charly & The Superheroes’, is available from 19th September in e-book and paperback formats from Amazon and other online stores. Suitable for children aged 10+, juveniles, young adults, teachers and parents:
I’ve just re-published a new, longer second edition of Abandoned, book one in A Light in the Dark Ages series. It addresses the complaints at the brevity of the original novella that told the story of Marcus and the defence of Calleva. This is now incorporated into a longer story that charts Britannia’s troubled journey from abandonment by the Romans to choosing a king to organise their defence from determined raiders.
The narrative thrust is loosely guided by the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 1136 work, The History of the Kings of Britain. The romantic in me likes to think there might be some credence in his account of events in fifth century Britannia leading up to the coming of King Arthur (now widely thought to be a composite of a number of leaders who organised opposition to the spread of Anglo-Saxon colonists).
I’m holding the e-book price at just 99p/99c – so please help me replace the lost reviews from the now unpublished first edition. Much work has gone into this upgrade from novella to novel – I hope you enjoy it! http://amazon.co.uk/dp/B07FKT7W8J http://amazon.com/dp/B07FKT7W8J
Fellow indie author, C.H. Clepitt, has launched her new book today – congratulations!
C H Clepitt has a knack for creating real, relatable characters, who face adversity with humour and humanity, and Curtain Call is no exception.
When an assistant to the director role turns into P.A. to her favourite film star, Jen can’t believe her luck. Eleanor Francis is charming, kind and funny, but she has a secret, and when tragedy strikes, things threaten to unravel at an uncontrollable pace. Despite being out of her depth Jen has to adapt to her new role quickly, to protect Eleanor, with whom she is rapidly falling in love.
This is a sweet, understated story that will have you laughing and crying in equal measure. If you’ve enjoyed C H Clepitt’s other books (including the witty, I Wore Heels to the Apocalypse) then this is not to be missed.
“The story is very well written and flows nicely… I would love to read more about the two main characters in future books.” – Simon Leonard – Black Books Blog
“Love blossoms in an unexpected place in this emotional short story. A change of direction for Clepitt but delicately written and heartfelt.” – Claire Buss – Author of The Rose Thief and other novels.
“The story’s optimism that makes it such a joy to read and leaves one feeling there must be hope after all.” A.M. Leibowitz – Author of Keeping the Faith and other novels
Curtain Call is available in e-book format at £1.99 from Amazon –
June 1966 – England had just won the World Cup at London’s Wembley Stadium and a happy nation basked in the warm satisfaction of sporting success. Teenage boys in ironed white shirts, inch-wide ties and pleated trousers lounged against the wall outside The Ritz Ballroom in Camden Town on a balmy summer’s evening, eyeing up the girls in their colourful dresses – the hemlines having recently moved up to expose knees and thighs. The two groups exchanged banter in a timeless mating ritual – coquettish glances and shy giggles elicited macho poses from strutting cocks who combed up their Brylcreemed hair and dragged on their tabs, nonchalantly flicking the stubs in the general direction of the gutter.
Brian Smith knew whom he was after. A pretty little blonde girl he knew from school called Helen. She was one year his junior but was no longer a geeky schoolgirl – she had blossomed into an attractive young woman, and he was determined to ask her to dance. That was the protocol. Bundle inside, pay your sixpence at the box office, get a paper cup of fruit punch and line the walls with your mates – waiting for the hall to fill and the jazz band to strike up a familiar tune. Brian combed back his brown quiff and pushed off the wall, with a ‘good luck mate’ from a friend bolstering his nerve.
The crowds seemed to part before him as he crossed the hall. Her friends whispered and giggled as she looked up – it was as if she had been waiting for him. He held her wide blue-eyed gaze and asked, “Would you like to dance?”
“I can’t jive,” she said. Her friends laughed as if it was the funniest joke ever, buying Brian a few seconds to formulate his next move.
“Then let’s get some punch and wait for the next one,” he said, taking her firmly by the arm and leading her away from her friends. ‘Always try to separate them from their mates’ was the advice that came to mind, given by one of the older boys.
“Are you always so forceful?” she asked, sipping her drink and glancing over at her jealous friends.
“I’m no longer a kid. I’m joining the police next week,” he said. This was designed to impress her and it worked – responsibility and a steady job.
“I like this one,” she said, as the band played a popular hit. This time it was Helen doing the leading, as the infatuated couple found a space and held each other in a classic dance pose.
“It all seemed so easy,” Brian told his mates the next day. “As if it were meant to be. We’re going out now, so no comments or whistles.”
He transitioned seamlessly from hanging out with mischief in mind to police training college and being in a steady relationship. He even put his name down for a council flat. In those heady days of youth everything seemed possible, and his world was full of firsts. First girlfriend; first job; first pay cheque; first passport; first holiday and soon after, marriage and first home of their own.
Brian would twirl his police whistle in the pub for laughs, but cautioned his mates on their behaviour. He had the cocky confidence of his hero – football captain Bobby Moore – and each morning his feet slipped effortlessly into his size nine boots, as if this was always meant to be.
This short story is taken from Postcards from London by Tim Walker
Postcards from London is a new book of 15 short stories by myself, Tim Walker, due for release on Sunday 10th September. Please ‘like’ my facebook page for news and updates, and to get the link to the FREE ebook download on the 10th and 11th September.