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Taking Silk–The Emperor’s Tale

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After the proper period of mourning had elapsed, the four chroniclers met in a little chapel in the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, who was, after all, the avatar of wisdom. To inspire their deliberations in other and more sensual ways, their nostrils occasionally caught the fading scent of incense, burning at the High Altar, and they could faintly hear the latest mass being said for the soul of the late Emperor.“He was a great soldier, whose armies drove the barbarians from whole tracts of the old empire,” said the first chronicler. Nearby, a scribe (who was also a slave, and therefore sat on a low stool with his forehead level with the table top) smoothed a piece of parchment on his knees and poised his stylus.“But not from Mother Rome herself,” said the second. “The Empire remains here, at Constantinople, in the Holy City of Byzantium. Savages still desecrate the seven sacred hills.”“Perhaps,” said the third, “for his brave attempt and that sad failure we should call him ‘The Last Roman…

“All this, from a tent in Zimbabwe”

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Just after the snows had melted, two friends died within a few days of each other.The first to leave us, on January 23, was Noel Wain. I’d met him when he joined The Western Morning News as chief reporter. I was his deputy. Later he became picture editor, and in a final chapter, he cut free and discovered his real vocation as a painter. This is one of his pieces, a painted collage of objects found on a Westcountry beach. It was created in 1989.Four days later, we lost Brian Pedley, whom I knew when he and I were at Television South West, where he was a senior producer, working principally on the evening news magazine.I liked to think that at least in spirit (if not in fact) Brian was descended from that robust line of Westcountry non-conformist radicals, those upright, unbowing dissenters whose stock also produced the late Labour leader Michael Foot, who was, like Brian, one of Plymouth Argyle’s passionate pilgrims.Brian was a master of popular TV journalism, a tough discipline which …

Thank you, Wilko

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Yes, yes, I know 1975 was the year of the last great EU referendum, but that same Summer my good friend Graham Ball (himself a scion of Southend-on-Sea) barged into my house clutching a vinyl LP called Down by the Jetty and pushed past me to the record player (a Pioneer PL-12D wired to  a pair of Wharfedale Dentons) crying “listen to this, listen to this,” and introduced me to Dr Feelgood.So in the week when Wilko Johnson (Feelgood guitarist, nearest to you) announced his farewell tour – farewell because he also announced, with dignity, wisdom, and measured wit that he was dying - I find I don’t really care much about Mr Cameron’s forthcoming referendum; or only insofar as the event might fulfil the promise of an entertainment suggested in these lines from Marx:“Hegel says somewhere that  great historic events occur twice. He forgot to add: 'once as tragedy, and again as farce'.”I do care about Wilko, though, who was also a philosopher and historian, and I care, of course, abo…

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 9): An icy solution

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I did not expect to sleep, in the anticipation of that fatal dawn. But somehow, albeit I was fully clothed, and despite the cold and the stink of mothballs from a candlewick bedspread, I drifted away, and dreamed that a light was pulsing in my face, and then brightening, and then fading away – and woke to watch, through the uncurtained windows, clouds dancing across the moon.
At six, Lestrade and Entwistle came into my room. “Shall I wake Holmes?” I asked.
“We have at least another hour,” the metropolitan detective replied tetchily, shining a torch around my room, though for no reason I could deduce. Why had he come so early? Wearing a flat cap, battered sheepskin coat, old moleskin trousers and wellington boots, Lestrade looked more like a poacher than a policeman. At least the priest was in character, in his grey overcoat, buttoned to the neck. One of his hands grasped a bible; through the fingers of the other played the olive-wood beads of a rosary which was attached to an ivo…

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 8): A cold snap for Halloween

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Mycroft Holmes, now unveiled as a vice-regent of the dark powers, brushed a few damp ivy leaves from his astrakhan collar and leaned down over the Great Chess set. “My cockatrice takes your lion and leaves your king vulnerable.” He smiled at Holmes, delicately moving the pieces. “In fact, your king is fatally exposed, I think.”
The fire murmured and settled. Holmes sighed and placed another log among the embers, pushing it down with the heel of his boot. “Perhaps I must surrender after all,” he said.
“What did you say this imposter’s name was asked?” Lestrade.
“Mephistopheles,” said Holmes.
“Well, it’ll be hello ‘Metphistophelose’ and into my bracelets unless I get a few straight answers pretty quickly,” snapped the London bobby. Not for the first time, I admired his phlegmatism – the absence of any trace of romance in a mind which proceeded instead from one simple building block to the next, eschewing the grand, imaginative leaps which typified Holmes’s deductive procedure. It …

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 7): A bargain with Mycroft

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Mycroft’s humming unnerved me. Rumbling through the scarf of fat that swathed his windpipe was a distorted but unmistakeable tune – and had there been a doubt, Lestrade dispelled it when the humming stopped and he picked up the broken melody to sing with a matching flatness: “You’ll always have your way if he likes you in a negligee, keep young and beautiful...”
“Oh, do shut up, Lestrade,” I cried. “That wretched song is beginning to cause grief.”
So we drove in a prickly silence for a while; down the steep hill into Gunnislake, through the village, and sharply down again to the single track of New Bridge. I reminded Mycroft of his promise to “elucidate” our mysteries as we travelled, but he pursed his lips, steered slowly up through the pine-canopied ‘S’-bends of the valley’s side, and said he needed to concentrate on the road. There would be revelations, but “later, later, all in good time”.
“Not as if we’re short of an enigma or two,” muttered Lestrade, and squinting hard at …

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 6): Of detectives and detection

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Was the hiss emitted by the lifting bottle-cap, or Lestrade’s plump lips? Difficult to tell, but without doubt there was a trace of parody in the Scotland Yard man’s tone when he remarked, putting the metal opener down and pouring his beer into a glass, “this, I think, is a triple White Shield problem.”
The two of us were sitting on scuffed, dun-coloured leather armchairs in the seedy, dun-coloured parlour of Webb’s Hotel in Liskeard, which the unexpected sunlight of this October afternoon failed to penetrate through either of two tall, cobwebbed and mossy windows. Lestrade had just joined me, a sheaf of papers on his lap, all written over in his own distinctively thin and wavering hand (“a penmanship that looks,” Holmes had once remarked, “as if a bluebottle had lately escaped from a bottle of whisky into a bottle of blue-black Quink and then gone staggering across a notepad.”)
There was a bluebottle, now, rubbing its forelegs together in one of the little rings of beer Lestrad…