I was thrilled when someone mentioned the Windsor Talking Newspaper charity in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Their volunteers provide a valuable information service for blind people in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead council area. They distribute a USB memory stick each week to their subscribers with local and national news stories read and recorded by volunteers – what a great idea.
I met with the organisers and they thought it was a good idea to serialise my short stories in Thames Valley Tales, voiced by actor Richard James, onto each weekly issue for an eight week run.
This will start after Easter, and I’m looking forward to the feedback from their 1,000-odd subscribers across the RBWM Council area.
It is hoped that stories located locally that reflect contemporary issues and evoke some of the rich history and legends associated with the river Thames will surely resonate with the audience.
The Merry Women of Windsor is a comic update of Shakespeare’s classic play; Runnymede Rebellion is a human drama that examines the meaning and relevance of the personal freedoms enshrined in Magna Carta; and Maidenhead Thicket sees the ghost of highwayman Dick Turpin surprise a Council surveyor.
Other stories in the collection of nine are set in Oxford, Henley-on-Thames, Newbridge, Goring-on-Thames and the Uffington White Horse.
Audiobook fans can find Thames Valley Tales on Amazon Audible and Apple iTunes store. It’s also available from Amazon in paperback, Kindle and Kindle Unlimited via this link:
After eight years and fifteen book titles, I’ve just published my first audiobook. I chose a set of nine short stories under the title Thames Valley Tales, and hired actor Richard James to narrate and produce it. He’s done a fine job, adding in appropriate music and sound effects, and his variation in accents between different characters has really brought the stories to life. Here’s the blurb:
Thames Valley Tales is a light-hearted yet thought-provoking collection of nine stories by Tim Walker. These tales are based on the author’s experience of living in Thames Valley towns, and combine contemporary themes with the rich history and legends associated with an area stretching from the heart of rural England to London.
The collection includes The Goldfish Bowl, in which an unlikely friendship is struck between a pop star and an arms dealer in Goring-on-Thames; Maidenhead Thicket, where the ghost of legendary highwayman, Dick Turpin surprises a Council surveyor; The White Horse intrigue surrounding the dating of the famous chalk carving on the Berkshire Downs; Murder at Henley Regatta, a beguiling whodunit, and The Colnbrook Caper, a pacey crime thriller.
Thames Valley Tales starts with The Grey Lady, a ghost story from the English Civil War, and features The Merry Women of Windsor in a whimsical updating of Shakespeare’s classic play. The Author’s Note explains the context and reasoning behind each story.
Thames Valley Tales oscillates from light-hearted to dark historical and at times humorous stories ideally suited to bedtime or holiday reading that will amuse, delight and, hopefully, inform the reader about the rich history of the Thames Valley as it winds 215 miles from the Gloucestershire countryside, past many towns and villages to London and out to the North Sea.
The book also has a factual chapter and map of the Thames Valley showing the towns through which the 184-mile Thames Path passes. It’s a walk-through history and the natural beauty of England that will inspire and captivate.
Thames Valley Tales, second edition, is available in audiobook, Kindle e-book and paperback from Amazon worldwide, and can also be found on Kindle Unlimited.
Buy Link Amazon Kindle, paperback, Audible and Kindle Unlimited
Also in Apple iTunes store.
Audiobook Narrator Thames Valley Tales audiobook is narrated and produced by actor, author and playwright Richard James who has been appearing on stage and screen for over thirty years. Most recently, he played a guest role in Miss Scarlet & The Duke for PBS and Alibi Films and was nominated for ‘Best Supporting Performance’ at the Off West End Awards for his roles in A Sherlock Carol at the Marylebone Theatre. Richard is on Twitter as @RichardNJames
Author Bio: Tim Walker is an independent author living near Windsor in the UK. He grew up in Liverpool where he began his working life as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper. After attaining a degree in Communication Studies he moved to London where he worked in the newspaper publishing industry for ten years before relocating to Zambia where, following a period of voluntary work with VSO, he set up his own marketing and publishing business. He returned to the UK in 2009. His creative writing journey began in earnest in 2014, as a therapeutic activity whilst recovering from cancer treatment. He began writing an historical fiction series, A Light in the Dark Ages, inspired by a visit to the site of a former Roman town. The series connects the end of Roman Britain to elements of the Arthurian legend and is inspired by historical source material, presenting an imagined history of Britain in the fifth and early sixth centuries. Book one is Abandoned (second edition 2018); followed by Ambrosius: Last of the Romans (2017) and Uther’s Destiny (2018). The last two books in the series, Arthur Dux Bellorum (2019) and Arthur Rex Brittonum (2020) cover the life of an imaged historical King Arthur, and are both Coffee Pot Book Club recommended reads. In 2021 he published a dual timeline historical novel, Guardians at the Wall. This was inspired by visits to Vindolanda and Corbridge at Hadrian’s Wall, and concerns the efforts of archaeologists to uncover evidence and build a narrative of the life of a Roman centurion in second century Britannia… and find his missing payroll chest. Tim has also written three books of short stories, Thames Valley Tales (second edition 2023), Postcards from London (2017) and Perverse (2020); a dystopian thriller, Devil Gate Dawn (2016); and three children’s books, co-authored with his daughter, Cathy – The Adventures of Charly Holmes (2017), Charly & the Superheroes (2018) and Charly in Space (2020). He plans to re-work some stories in Postcards from London into London Tales, with the addition of new stories, for publication in 2024 in audiobook, Kindle and paperback. Author website
To my mind, an audiobook is half way between a good read and an engaging TV drama or film.
By this I mean a good narrator with appropriate sound effects can bring out the visual qualities of a book in the mind of the listener – painting a picture of a scene, if you will.
In my new audiobook, Thames Valley Tales (March 2023 release) I took advice and read my stories aloud, noting how dialogue between characters sounded and made adjustments. I found my writing style was somewhat formal, and changed a lot of ‘could haves’ to ‘could’ve’ and so on.
I also hired an actor, Richard James, to narrate and produce it, and have marvelled at his ability to bring the various characters to life through use of accents and verbal foibles or signatures, making each one stand out. He also introduced appropriate music at the start of each story in the collection for genre orientation and identified appropriate sound effects.
The net result is to bring my stories to life, lifting them off the page to play out scenes in the mind of the listener in a very visual evocation.
I’m excited. It’s my first audiobook and my tactic of selecting nine stories from a pool of fifteen that I feel have the best visual qualities has paid off. Listen and be amazed.
This collection of nine contemporary tales that resonate with the rich history and legends associated with the flowing heart of England must surely be picked up by a film or TV producer looking for the next big hit!
Here’s the trailer I’ve just posted on YouTube… and watch out for the March launch:
I’ve been busy and, whilst the audio was being recorded, have taken down the first edition of Thames Valley Tales e-book and paperback, replacing them with new second editions. The paperback is currently on discount at £4.99 and the Kindle e-book at £1.99.
It was the worst of times – that dead time between people-focussed governments, when the clocks have swung back to a harsh and mean-minded era. Someone in the food bank queue mumbled, ‘ain’t we s’posed to be one of the World’s richest countries?’ A northerly wind blew snow flurries around numb feet as children forgot the cold to build a snow blob.
Potatoes with pimples, carrots greying at the ends, selection boxes past their sell by date, crackers that don’t crack – their jokes not funny anymore.
His ‘shop’ complete, Bob Cratchit lifted Tiny Tim and held him out to a volunteer. ‘Please let him play here in the warmth for a few hours as I’ve got to get back to work.’
‘This is a food bank, love, not a creche,’ replied a ruddy cheeked matron hardened to the effects of poverty, leaning away from the crooked-limbed child. ‘But here’s a toy for the kid.’ She pushed something into his bag.
Worth a try. Cratchit squinted at the sleet and scooped up his son, holding two carrier bags in the other hand. ‘It’s back to granny for you, Tim.’
‘But her house is cold, Dad!’ the lad squealed.
‘Well, clap your hands and whistle God Save the King like I told you.’
A military ambulance rumbled by and a soldier on patrol eyed him with suspicion. Bob’s minimum wage job barely covered the rent, leaving little for food or heating. The threat of dismissal prompted him to hurry, but as he rounded a corner, he slipped on a patch of ice, child and food sent flying. Cratchit lay on his back, blinking snowflakes from his eyes. He tried to move but couldn’t.
The crying of Tiny Tim attracted the attention of the soldier. ‘You’d better move along, Sir, or I’ll have you interred for vagrancy’.
Cratchit found he couldn’t speak, and could only move his eyes.
The soldier stood over him, looking down the barrel of his rifle. ‘Right, I’m calling for back-up’.
A car slowed, its occupants gawping at the two prone figures guarded by a soldier. Terrorists or Communists. Or perhaps Communist Terrorists? Both words were getting a good workout in the media. The car sped away. Peeling-paint doors remained resolutely closed along the terrace of worker cottages.
After thirty bone-freezing minutes, during which the child’s crying had become a whimper, a riot van arrived and Cratchit and Tiny Tim were bundled into the back. Squashed vegetables and a crushed toy the only evidence they had ever been there.
The van drove to the local team’s football stadium. It had been re-purposed as a Re-Education Centre, run by Chinese guards. The People’s Republic of China had been the successful bidder, having demonstrated relevant experience and eerie enthusiasm.
Cratchit and son were carried on stretchers into the stadium to a medical tent where they were gawped at and prodded by white-coated orderlies.
‘At least we’ll get fed and have a roof over our heads’ Cratchit said to his son.
An elderly man in the bed next to him leaned over and whispered, ‘don’t bet on it. They’re assessing us for ability to work. If you’re no use to ’em they’ll send you to Maggie’s Cabin.’
A startled Cratchit recovered enough muscle power to twist his head slightly. With a croak, his voice returned, ‘What in Hell’s name is Maggie’s Cabin?’
Bloodshot eyes and a pause were unsettling. The old man leant towards him. ‘It’s the away team changing room. Trouble makers, the old, sick and injured are taken there, and no one ever comes out.’
Cratchit gulped and glanced at his son. ‘Well, we’d better do what we can to make the home team, eh son?’ His reassuring grin did little to lift the spirits of the permanently disappointed boy.
Soon after, they were transferred to trollies and wheeled out through a side exit.
‘Be strong and play well!’ the man shouted, earning a slap from an orderly.
A thin veil of snow shrouded the rejects as their trolley wheels squeaked along a rubber mat that led to… the away team changing rooms.
‘In a curious, disconnected way, I’m ready; and it’ll be a release for Tim from his miserable existence.’ All is calm. Cratchit smiled at the upside-down, narrow eyes above him and hummed the tune that was in his head – Silent Night…
Tall Tim awoke from his dream, quickly dressed in the cold room and shuffled to his kitchen. An army truck pulled up in the snow-mush car park and six squaddies in wrong-scenery camouflage gear jumped out, grabbing the communal Christmas tree and shoving it into the truck.
‘There’s something you don’t see every morning,’ Tim muttered as he stroked his cat, Trotsky, to a purr. One of them returned and planted a sign. Tim moved to another window so that he could read it. ‘CHRISTMAS CANCELLED FOR UNIVERSAL CREDIT SCROUNGERS’ it read, in a menacing script, accompanied by the regime’s iron fist logo.
‘Our government, dropping all pretence of human decency, has spoken.’ Trotsky purred his indifference. Tim shuffled to the front door and picked up a leaflet that had been posted overnight.
‘Join the Resistance and let’s reclaim our country from the fascists!‘ the headline bawled.
He sat at his table, sipping tea and spreading marmalade on his toast. ‘Might be worth a look, Trotters, but only after the snow and ice have melted.’
This blog post is a summary of Tim Walker’s self-published book titles from 2015 to date. He currently has fifteen titles available in e-book, print-on-demand paperback and hardback formats. Available from Amazon in Kindle (all titles) and Kindle Unlimited (all titles except A Light in the Dark Ages series); and from draft2digital.com in Apple i-books; Nook; Kobo and other online stores (A Light in the Dark Ages series only).
Historical Fiction Short Stories Thriller/dystopian novel Children’s books Poems and flash fiction
Published in June 2021, Guardians at the Wall is a gripping dual timeline historical novel set at Hadrian’s Wall. Archaeologists uncover artefacts that connect them to the life and battles of a Roman centurion in second century Britannia.
A LIGHT IN THE DARK AGES book series (see below) now has a new BOOK SERIES page on Amazon and is also now available in two HARDBACK VOLUMES!
Lose yourself in the mists of post-Roman Britain with A Light in the Dark Ages book series. Follow the link to visit the Amazon book page and download all five novels for less than £9 / $14 on Kindle.
Visit my AUTHOR PAGE on Amazon to view all my books and read the blurbs and reviews before deciding.
…or try being PERVERSE, with this 2020 collection of Lockdown short prose and verse.
Get the e-book for just 99c/p HERE or the paperback for just £$4.99 HERE
KIDS STUCK AT HOME, BORED?
Then dive into the Adventures of Charly Holmes three-book series, for readers aged 9-14.
Lose yourself in the fictional world of schoolgirl detective, Charly Holmes – get drawn into her adventures and find out if she will succeed in overcoming whatever problem, issue or overbearing adult that stands in her way!
Take advantage of my low prices on all three books in the Charly Holmes: Girl Detective book series (readers aged 9+).
The Adventures of Charly Holmes now has a book series page on Amazon! HERE
Book 1: The Adventures of Charly Holmes
Book 2: Charly & The Superheroes
Book 3: Charly in Space
GUARDIANS AT THE WALL is Tim’s latest book, a historical dual timeline novel, published in June 2021.
A group of archaeology students in northern England scrape at the soil near Hadrian’s Wall, once a barrier that divided Roman Britannia from wild Caledonian tribes. Twenty-year-old Noah makes an intriguing find, but hasn’t anticipated becoming the object of desire in a developing love triangle in the isolated academic community at Vindolanda. He is living his best life, but must learn to prioritise in a race against time to solve an astounding ancient riddle, and an artefact theft, as he comes to realise his future career prospects depend on it. In the same place, 1,800 years earlier, Commander of the Watch, Centurion Gaius Atticianus, hungover and unaware of the bloody conflicts that will soon challenge him, is rattled by the hoot of an owl, a bad omen. These are the protagonists whose lives brush together in the alternating strands of this dual timeline historical novel, one trying to get himself noticed and the other trying to stay intact as he approaches retirement. How will the breathless battles fought by a Roman officer influence the fortunes of a twenty-first century archaeology dirt rat? Can naive Noah, distracted by his gaming mates and the attentions of two very different women, work out who to trust? BUY HERE
A LIGHT IN THE DARK AGES SERIES
This book series presents an imagined history of life in Britain in the Fifth and early Sixth Centuries – the period after the Roman evacuation around the year 410 AD. This is the Dark Ages, a time of myths and legends that builds to the greatest legend of all – King Arthur. ORDER BOOK SERIES HERE
Abandoned – Book one in the series, starts in Britain in 410 AD – the final year of Roman occupation of their most northerly province. Bishop Guithelin undertakes a perilous journey to a neighbouring country to plead with a noble prince to come and save his ailing country. An epic adventure ensues involving the rivalry of local chiefs and the efforts of a determined group to instil order and resist invaders. The abandonment of Britannia by the Romans was a time of opportunity for some, and great anguish and suffering for others as the island underwent a slow and painful adjustment to self-rule. Now also available here on Apple i-books; Kobo; Nook (Barnes & Noble) and others HERE
Ambrosius: Last of the Romans – Book two in the series, starts with the return to Britannia in 440 AD of Ambrosius Aurelianus, son of murdered King Constantine. He has come to avenge his father’s death at the hands of cruel tyrant, Vortigern, who has seized control of the island and employ Saxons in his mercenary army. But who is the master and who the puppet? Ambrosius finds that the influence of Rome is fast becoming a distant memory as Britannia reverts to its Celtic tribal roots, and rivalries surface as chiefs choose their side in an ensuing civil war. i-book, kobo, nook HERE
Uther’s Destiny – Book three in the series. In the year 467 AD Britannia is in shock at the murder of charismatic High King, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and looks to his brother and successor, Uther, to continue his work in leading the resistance to barbarian invaders. Uther’s destiny as a warrior king seems set until his world is turned on its head when his burning desire to possess the beautiful Ygerne leads to conflict. Could the fate of his kingdom hang in the balance as a consequence? i-book, kobo, nook HERE
Arthur Dux Bellorum is the fourth book in the series and follows on from Uther’s Destiny. A youthful Arthur must flee for his life from his older sister, Morgana, who seizes Uther’s crown for her son, Mordred. Arthur moves north, through a fractured landscape of tribal conflict and invasion, rallying followers to his cause. As he matures into a leader of battles – a dux bellorum – he learns the lessons needed to survive and inspire his followers, until the day he can challenge Mordred for the throne. Also in ibooks, Kobo, Nook and others HERE
Arthur Rex Brittonum is book five in the series. It charts the second half of Arthur’s life. Now a married man with two children, he is crowned King of Britannia by the northern chiefs, but must now convince their southern counterparts to join his army and oppose the creeping colonisation of the Anglo-Saxons. From a stunning victory at Badon Hill, he is taunted by his nephew, Mordred, who draws him into a deadly winner-takes-all battle at Camlann. Also available on ibooks, Kobo, Nook HERE
Devil Gate Dawn – is a near-future dystopian thriller set in 2026, predicting turbulent life in post-Brexit Britain and Trump America. Retired railwayman George is the unlikely hero of this tense thriller in which he forms a vigilante group who try to solve a deadly terrorist cyber plot, and is unwittingly drawn into a daring rescue attempt for kidnapped Head of Government, King Charles III.
Postcards from London – The city of London is the star of this collection of fifteen engaging human dramas. London’s long and complex history almost defies imagination, but the author has conjured citizens from many familiar eras, and some yet to be imagined. Turn over these picture postcards to explore his city through a collage of human dramas told in a range of genres. See the tumult of these imagined lives spotlighted at moments in London’s past, present and, who knows, perhaps its future. Published in September 2017.
Thames Valley Tales– 15 contemporary short stories, set along the River Thames, that draw on the rich history and folklore of the flowing heart of England. Stories set in Oxford; Henley; Marlow; Maidenhead; Windsor; Colnbrook; Runnymede and London. First published in 2015, updated in 2017.
The Adventures of Charly Holmes – Follow the adventures of a curious 12-year-old schoolgirl, as she uncovers an alien dogs’ conspiracy, investigates the legend of the Loch Ness Monster and goes on an eventful trip to London Zoo. For children aged 9+ and parents. Co-written by Tim Walker and his daughter, Cathy.
Charly In Space – Inquisitive schoolgirl, Charly Holmes, goes on a school trip to the European Space Agency in France. Somehow, she manages to stowaway on a rocket to the International Space Station! Follow her adventures in space, and her encounter with alien dogs!
Charly & The Superheroes – Charly’s second adventure sees her going to Hollywood to watch a superhero movie being made. But a real-life disaster strikes and she must use her initiative to assist four superheroes to save the day!
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 head of the UK intelligence service says more attacks are inevitable as Britain sees ‘dramatic upshift’ in Islamist terrorism, says a report in The Guardian (18/10/17). Must we now accept this as the new ‘normal’?
The alarmist report continues: “Britain is facing its most severe ever terrorist threat and fresh attacks in the country are inevitable, according to the head of Britain’s normally secretive domestic intelligence service in a rare public speech.
Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, said the UK had seen “a dramatic upshift in the threat” from Islamist terrorism this year, reflecting attacks that have taken place in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.
The spy chief said: “That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.”
He added: “It’s at the highest tempo I have seen in my 34-year career. Today there is more terrorist activity, coming at us more quickly, and it can be harder to detect.”
Clearly, it not just the terrorists who want to alarm us – the authorities also wish to ‘prep’ us and ensure we are receptive to warnings and security measures. When the two sides clash, you need to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
This must undoubtedly have a waring effect on the population, particularly of large cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. Engendering fear and intimidation amongst the civilians of a country targeted by extremist political and religious groups is the aim of terrorism, and the greater the atrocity, the more likely it is to succeed. People will inevitably be on their guard, more suspicious and more easily spooked by loud random noises and the sound of sirens. More security checks slow down people’s progress and have become a major inconvenience of modern life.
I have tried to capture some of these issues and feelings in my short story, ‘Geraniums’, in my book, ‘Postcards from London’. In this story, my main characters are retired couple George and Maggie Taylor who embark on a theatre trip to London by train. They take advantage of good weather to walk along the South Bank and onto Westminster Bridge, noting the recent addition of steel pavement furniture following a previous terrorist incident. They pose for photos with the Houses of Parliament behind them when…BANG!
“A flash of light was followed a nano-second later by a loud explosion that shook the bridge under our feet, causing us to stagger. I put my arm around Maggie and we instinctively crouched by the stone wall as bits of masonry and assorted debris rained down on us. A large black cloud billowed over the Underground station entrance – with screams and shouts providing a chilling soundtrack. My ears were ringing and I felt dazed – I looked at Maggie to check that she was all right and we slumped into a sitting position as I held her tightly around her shoulders, trying to stay calm.
Flower petals settled on us and I picked one up. I was in a surreal dream of odd shapes and noises; an unfamiliar world where time has been slowed and distorted.
“Pelargoniums,” I slurred, hardly hearing myself over the ringing in my ears. “We call them Geraniums – a single red flowering plant… native of South Africa, I believe… popularised by US President Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century…”
Maggie looked at me with a combination of shock, annoyance and concern in her blue eyes. Picture postcards of London scenes and debris from a kiosk rained like confetti. One, singed at the edges, fluttered into her lap. Tower Bridge by moonlight. Someone then tripped over my outstretched foot and stumbled, falling to their hands and knees…”
Read on in ‘Postcards from London’ – order the e-book or paperback here:-
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.