The Wood Road North



The Nailmasters: Bill Smothers

The Nailmasters are one of the two folk bands which appear in my novel The Wood Road North, and this performance is one of the few artefacts documenting their existence outside the text.  Here we find singer Bill Smothers accompanying himself on the song with which he shares a name.  This was recorded at the band’s secret studio in 2001, and tells the story of a hopeless drinker in the grip of forces greater than himself.

Bill Smothers: guitar and vocals.  Solar winds summoned by Yuri Gaga.

I’m having a crisis!  This face isn’t mine.  So you’ve seen me drink lager?  I used to drink wine.  The stars of my future shone down over me until I couldn’t say what the future might be.  Now the black clouds gather round here.  It’s blowing like rain and it will do, I fear.  But the rain and the pain fall again and again around here.  This rotten pub was a filthy old hole when I first started drinking, a decade ago.  I’d never considered I’d ever come in, but I still wasn’t trying so hard to fit in.  Now the black clouds gather round here.  I’m crying my troubles out into my beer, but the ale is available late, if you’re regular here.  This is the house where my grandparents lay, and where I’ll more than likely be laid out one day.  Bill’s poor old mother lives under a cloud, and although it’s a dark one, she’s stubbornly proud.  Now the black clouds gather round here.  I’m living in Belper and living in fear of the shadows that follow me, waiting to swallow me here.

The Stoat

My decidedly unfestive short story The Stoat is now available in print, as part of the Spooky Tales anthology of competition winners from What The Dickens magazine.

Spooky Tales at Amazon.

Also available for Kindle.


Commentary: Belper’s Many Taverns

Belper’s Many Taverns was my first short story, or rather my first for what its narrator would call a lot o’ years. The Belper Arts Festival competition was announced in the autumn of 2012, just as I was completing the second draft of my novel The Wood Road North. After five years on this project I was ready for something shorter, but wanted to write stories which fed into, or flowed out from, the novel and its counterpart, i.e. the one I’m writing at the moment.

Mr. Barrass makes a very brief appearance in The Wood Road North, but as Paul Linford correctly spotted in his comments on Belper’s Many Taverns, Barrass is drinking in the Queen’s Head on Chesterfield Road. This pub is the setting for numerous episodes in the novel, as are many more of Belper’s taverns. The novel takes place in 1996, and so some of these hostelries are no longer open. I was particularly sad, given its key role in both the writing of the novel and the text itself, to see the closure of the Lord Nelson on Bridge Street. There was a lot of me in that pub. Hopefully a fair exchange was made, so that the Nelson can live on through me, and my writing.

Barrass mentions two other minor figures from The Wood Road North, and alludes to one of its central characters, as well as businesses and locations of significance in the longer works. Some of the people he knows also appear in other stories from this collection; the stories have a narrative of their own, distinct from either novel.

Like Barrass, I remember first reading the phrase Belper’s Many Taverns during a lesson at school. The popular assertion (no doubt baseless) concerning the relative number of pubs in the town must have kept the idea in my mind, because its first creative use came as the title for a mooted spoken-word piece forming part of the Belper song cycle I composed during the 1990s. This project was never recorded properly, but the songs are complete and one of them appears in The Wood Road North. Possible titles for the record included She Was Only a Nailmaker’s Daughter, and another song from the lost Belper album gives an account of a relationship doomed by class, much like that between Barrass and Sam.

If I was writing this one again I might make rather less of the local accent and dialect. Having written and rewritten numerous Belper drinkers as characters I now think too much focus on the manner of speech gets in the way of the speech itself, and is an obstacle for the reader. Not that obstacles are a bad thing, in the right places. These stories in the main are less poetic, less modernistic than The Wood Road North, but they’re carved from the same trees, like the wide warping bar in the Queen’s Head.


Belper’s Many Taverns

Written for the Belper Arts Festival Short Story Competition in 2013. Placed as runner-up and published in the printed Anthology.

Back door, Queen's Head, Belper

It’s lovely beer, this. Proper nutty. Goin’ down a treat. Might be rainin’ outside, but I’m fine in ’ere wi’ me paper an’ the fire lit. Me name’s Mark, an’ this is Bess asleep by me stool, wore her out this mornin’ walkin’. We went along the river bank then right down Wyver Lane to the end an’ back, past the pond. Likes a walk, bless ’er, but she’s none as young as she used to be. It were nice early on, on’y started to rain as we were walkin’ up ’ere. I don’t mind a drop o’ rain. It’s got to rain, an’t it? Rather ’ave a drop of ale, mind.

I used to work at Dyer’s. This were a lot o’ years ago. Got sack for turning up drunk, on’y I wan’t drunk, nowhere near. Just ’cause you smell o’ beer dun’t mean you’re drunk, does it? Anyhow, they got rid o’ me, and I an’t worked since. Do the odd job for cash, but mostly it’s helpin’ out some o’ the ode ladies wi’ their gardens an’ that. Nothin’ regular. Wish I could o’ looked after me own mother before she went, but I din’t, an’ it’s too late to do oat about it now. It’s all right for them as earn a lot an’ ponce about in suits, they can drink all they like. Fine wines, single malts, nobody’s checkin’ on them. What they don’t understand is how hard it is to stop drinking. Once you start, I mean, not for good. But they don’t really like the stuff, not like me. I’m none alcoholic, though, ’cause I never have a drink in the mornin’. On’y after twelve, sometimes not till after tea. Roger, the landlord here, he says that’s how you know if you are – you’d have a drink in the morning, not just at night. Toplis says so an’ all, but I’m not sure he dun’t start earlier than me, some days. I don’t get hangovers, not like I used to. Not had a proper one since I were in me twenties. Just feel a bit tired and roll over for another sleep. It’s all right, livin’ on me own. I don’t miss having a woman in the house, I can clean up after meself if I have to. Not saying it’s always tidy, mind. Just as I could, if I needed.

Before I left school I started goin’ out with a girl called Sam. Her family weren’t from Belper, they’d lived somewhere near London before. She were pretty, too nice to be knockin’ round wi’ me. I remember her finishin’ wi’ me up on Crich Lane after I’d been moonin’ about lookin’ at clouds an’ she were tryin’ to talk at me, but I wan’t interested. Never were, if I’m honest. Missed her afterwards, when it were too late. Never learn. It hurt most when I saw her come out as I were going in to the Fisherman’s Rest one Sunday night. I were wi’ Shaun an’ little Nick from Ambergate, we’d been kicked out o’ the White House half hour before. Anyroad, she come out wi’ two or three dressy women an’ some blokes behind, an’ I could smell their perfume an’ aftershave. But when I waved an’ said hello, how you doin’, she looked at me like I were beggin’ in the gutter. Made me feel like a right waste o’ space, she did. I’ve felt like one ever since.

A bit after that I met Becky down the Rifleman’s and we was married inside a year. Had us reception at the Talbot. Her dad worked in the accounts at Glow Worm, wore a suit every day, the poor sod. He were all right, but her mother were a right stuck-up cow. Looked down her nose at that many folk for that many years I’m on’y surprised it weren’t even longer. I suppose Becky would have turned out same way, if she’d stopped long enough, and if I’d bin earnin’ enough. She were a nice Belper girl herself, but she had to listen to her mother and her nonsense all the time – this in’t good enough, that’s not how she likes it. We’d have got on fine without her. I wan’t really glad when she got cancer and died, but I said I was. I’d been drinking. You know how it is. We never had children, that’s one good thing. It were bad enough hurtin’ Becky, ’cause she’s a lovely woman really. Least I din’t have to ’urt me own flesh an’ blood.

I used to walk past where I live now, on the way to school in the mornin’, when I were at Strutt’s. I’d pass the Talbot, come over the bridge and stop to throw stones in the river off Belper Beach. It’s not a real beach, but I still stop there, we did this mornin’. Then over an’ under past the mills an’ Long Row school where I used to go, along Bridge Street by the Post Office what’s gone now, then the George, the Nelson, the Rifleman’s. I heard me dad an’ me brother an’ the older lads talkin’ about these places, made ’em sound brilliant. I couldn’t wait to grow up an’ go in pubs. That were what it meant to be a man, so far as I could tell. Used to walk past an’ pretend I were goin’ inside, specially if I went past when they were open an’ you could smell the beer an’ smoke an’ hear the voices. Course, I were like a virgin lookin’ at porn. I din’t know how many lies it were tellin’ me. At Strutt’s, the Herbert Strutt Middle School, we learned about everythin’, but mainly the Industrial Revolution and how most of it went off in Belper. No wonder we’re all so thirsty. That’s where I saw it, in a local history book they gave out in ENS – never did know what that stood for – “Belper’s many taverns,” it said. Belper’s many taverns. It were history, callin’ to me. So I answered, an’ I’ve been answerin’ ever since. Had me first pint in the George when I were about thirteen. It used to be that dark in there they din’t know how ode you was, couldn’t hardly see you. It were me as went up to the bar, ’cause I were taller than Shaun. We used to do everythin’ together. Sometimes at the High School a few of us’d slip out for a pint at lunch on the last day o’ term and not go back after. Went to the Grapes, usually. The Greyhound were nearer, but some of the teachers used to go there, an’ not just to check on us, neither. All right for them an’ all, wan’t it?

I liked art best at school. Din’t dare hope to make anything of it, but I fancied meself as best at drawin’ in the Upper Year, never mind me class, an’ that’s includin’ the teacher. He were nothin’ special, an’ he knew it. Used to call me Barrass instead o’ Mark. I din’t like that. Nobody ever showed me how you could earn at drawin’, so I never tried, an’ I still couldn’t tell you. I’ve never drawn oat for years, except me dole. By the time I left school I were spendin’ more time walkin’ about the streets twaggin’ it than I did in lessons. ‘Hot Pukka Pies,’ it said, on the chip shop sign opposite the end o’ John O’Gaunt’s Way, where the High School is. Was. Nobody said pukka in Belper, not then. ‘Hot Puke-a Pies,’ we used to shout, more baffled than oat else. We all went there. It were opposite school. Wan’t my favourite chippy though, that were on Nottingham Road, near the top of Stanton Avenue. You could on’y just get there and back at dinner time, but if you din’t want to go anywhere else it were all right. That chippy on Green Lane used to be good an’ all. Gone now. Little Nick from Ambergate were always sayin’ their chippy near the White House were the best in the world, but that were prob’ly just ’cause they an’t got nowhere else to go in Ambergate, on’y two pubs an’ all, poor bastards. Belper’s full o’ pubs though, in’t it? Lovely town, really. I’d not want to live anywhere else.

Not sure where I first heard this, but anyone’ll tell you, an’ I’ve heard it since about other towns. It’s just somethin’ people say. But back when I didn’t know any different, I thought it were real. They said Belper had more pubs per head of population, or per square mile or somethin’, than any other town in England. In Britain, or the world, for all I knew about it. So that was my inheritance, my – what do you call it? – my heritage, to drink. That’s why I’m here, what I were born for. Why resist it? Belper itself’s not historic, not unless you’re into mills and that. Feller as drinks in here sometimes – weekends mainly, I think he’s from University – he says everywhere’s historic, but it in’t, is it? Not Parks Estate, not White’ouse Rise. If he’d grown up at our ’ouse he’d not talk like that. Likes a drink, mind. As I say, you’re on’y ever scum if you drink an’ you’ve got nowt. Drink wi’ money, or an education, an’ you’re well away. Sociable. Garrulous. Raconteur. Dun’t sound right out o’ my mouth, does it?

Nobody were more surprised than me when I got the job at Dyer’s. Me mother had given up on me before I left school, an’ me dad never cared as long as his tea were on the table an’ there were sport on telly. I used to go there on the old Trent bus to Ripley. Never bothered learnin’ to drive. I could get where I wanted without drivin’. Course, it’s not helped me. Easier to walk up ’ere than the job centre, in’t it? More worth it an’ all – I come ’ere to get pissed, an’ I never leave disappointed, not like that useless place on King Street. I were just the fetch an’ carry lad really, but after a bit they set me on properly an’ I were doin’ all right. Never would’ve made me rich, but I liked it, an’ the others were a good laugh. If on’y there’d not bin two pubs on the road outside. I can wait for a drink, always could. It’s just once you start, like I said.

Sometimes, when I’ve had a skinful and I’m walking home, or before I go to bed if I’ve had a few tins in the house, that’s when I’m happiest. I feel as though everything’s goin’ to be all right, like I’ll get a job an’ start seeing a woman, or even meet one that likes a drink herself but in’t sixty. I feel like I can do anything if I try, that it’s all still there in front o’ me. Then in the morning I can see clear again and I know there’s no point trying to be somethin’ I’m not. It wouldn’t work. Bess here, she’s my best friend. I’d not be without ’er. Never argues, always pleased to see me, an’ we both want the same thing. I like a walk in the mornin’ – freshens you up, dun’t it? – an’ she likes a quiet afternoon an’ evenin’. We suit each another perfect. If she were a woman I’d change me mind about gettin’ married again. I’m none miserable. A lot o’ people think I must be, but I’m ’appy really. I can’t think what else I’d like to do, ’cept get up, go for a walk wi’ Bess an’ come out for a drink. Not like there’s oat decent on telly, is there?

To Belper’s Many Taverns, then! Each one of ’em’s got memories for me. Every one I’ve been to when I shouldn’t, or with someone I shouldn’t, or later than I should, or for longer. Some of ’em I’ll never go in again, nobody will. I did this tattoo on me hand meself, after me mate Shaun died. He shun’t o’ bin takin’ that stuff, an’ I shun’t o’ done it meself, but I wanted to mark it, to keep him here, where he should o’ bin, for as long as I was. So here’s to the lost uns! Them as din’t make it. Mates I’ve lost, an’ the pubs we used to drink in. The White Lion. The Imperial Vaults. The Spread Eagle. The Horse and Jockey. The Royal Oak. All them names, they’ll never sound excitin’ to young lads now, not in Belper.

They serve a good pint in here, I’ll say that for ’em. At a lot o’ places they don’t know how to keep their customers, let alone their ale. I’m not sayin’ I’ve not been chucked out of ’ere a time or two, but I knew when I were out of order. You just hope you won’t have to go ’ome on yer own just yet, you know how it is. You don’t want it to stop, to be over. I never did like havin’ to stop. So that’s my story, that’s what I’m doing ’ere at this time on a wet Tuesday afternoon. You can tell me yours in a minute, when you’ve filled these up for us.