Just a thought…

Is the story everything?

Stephen King tells us, in his terrific book On Writing, the story is everything. I’m not going to argue with a master storyteller, but does the story transcend the manner in which a book is written? If the story is really, really good can it be writ badly? Does the story forgive bad grammar, misused punctuation, too many redundant adverbs, an over-abundance of cliché?

King doesn’t imply this, of course, I’m sure he’d be horrified at the thought. But it came to mind recently when I was browsing for a book on Amazon and found, distressingly quickly, an offering that prompted this thought. It seemed to me it might be a very interesting story so I dived in and read the sample few pages. Well, by the third page I realised I was so enthralled by the bizarre punctuation I had no idea what the story was about. I went back and started again. This time it was the undisciplined nature of the writing that distracted me. I abandoned the book then, grateful I’d been able to sample it before wasting time and money.

I know writing is subjective and we all have different tastes but I’m talking about basic errors – no capital after a stop, commas misplaced and overused, inconsistent formatting as well as bad grammar. The sort of thing your agent or publisher wouldn’t allow, had you gone to print the conventional way rather than self-publish. Self-publishing is great in many ways but it does tend to allow a writer to by-pass quality control should they so choose.

I’ve decided no matter how engaging the story might be I couldn’t read a badly written, or edited, book. Could you?

Up the Khyber Pass

Many years ago I was in Peshawar on the northwest frontier region of Pakistan, a young engineer starting up a new flour milling facility.  I’d always wanted to travel through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border at Torkham but so far had been too busy with the mill. Throughout history the Khyber Pass had been an important trade route between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, part of the Silk Road, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see it. Then one morning the mill director told me a driver and a couple of employees were to go to Landi Kotal, a town at the highest point on the Khyber Pass, to pick up some duty-free goods. He suggested I go with them and while they shopped the driver would take me another three miles to the border so I could look into Afghanistan. I quickly agreed and we set off early the next morning to cover the thirty or so miles to Landi Kotal.

From Peshawar, we took the Asian Highway up through the Spin Ghar Mountains, through the Khyber Pass. The road snaked this way and that as it gained altitude, a precipitous drop to one side, my side, a steep rock wall to the other. Down in the valley I could see concrete anti-tank structures strewn like giant children’s jacks, a legacy of the Second World War. We passed convoys of gaudily decorated buses belching black smoke, their roofs piled high with people and baggage and bicycles and boxes, and trucks staggering under massive loads of timber, scrap metal and grain sacks.

At Landi Kotal, the western end of the Pass and highest point at 3,500 feet above sea level, we dropped the men, made arrangements to meet them in an hour and set off for the border. Parked at a spot just off the road I looked down into Afghanistan, the valley floor broadening out to an endless plain framed on each side by mountains. In Pakistan they drove on the left and in Afghanistan they drove on the right. This conflict was resolved at the Torkham border post below us where a sort of miniature spaghetti junction directed the opposing flows of traffic across each other to continue their journeys on the other side of the road.

Back at Landi Kotal the driver went off to round up the others while I wandered through the town in the increasing heat as noon approached. The bazaar appeared to have grown haphazardly over the years with crude structures erected here and there with no logical layout. There were stalls offering leather goods such as Peshwari sandals, belts, holsters and bandoliers, there were colourful mountains of fruit, piles of exotic eastern spices and bolts of material in every hue. Goat carcasses hung from steel hooks outside the butcher’s shack, the proprietor occasionally flicking a whisk to momentarily interrupt the gorging of the black flies which encased them. Men squatted in groups drinking green tea, smoking and chatting, their eyes following me as I strolled by, an alien interloper.

Further on I came across some rough brick buildings and in these were several gunsmiths. I watched a worker boring out a metal rod by hand to make a gun barrel and stacked against a wall were several completed rifles. This area had a reputation for producing unlicensed copies of firearms using primitive machine tools and whatever scrap metal was available. They’d make anything from a perfect copy of a British Army revolver to a musket and the quality would vary from superb to dangerously rubbish.

Pashtun tribesmen with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders strolled in twos and threes. The pungent smell of hashish was all around, mingling with the tang of wood smoke from the small bakeries churning out coarse chapattis. I returned to find the others already in the car enjoying the air-conditioning, surrounded by boxes of electrical appliances and stainless-steel pots and pans. Then we were wending our way back down the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, dust billowing behind the car.

Review of Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers

A teenage girl’s murder at the hands of a dangerously deranged man is the ring-pull on a festering can of worms. This is a story as bleak as winter in the North Yorkshire Dales which is where it’s set. As each layer of events is peeled away the reader is dragged ever further into a broth of sexual indulgence and depravity and murder.

There are no heroes here just the uneasy alliance between an obsessive detective from the big city with the usual raft of human failings and a journalist escaping a life of booze and drugs in Fleet Street to find himself and write his novel in the seclusion of this rural backwater. Together they prise from the tight-lipped community a grim tale of corruption and extreme pornography and a murderous cover-up.

Turning Blue is expertly written engrossing and satisfying. It’s also written without a single comma inverted or otherwise and that works too.

Fiction short story from John S Alty


The Captain

Without water and with no means to propel the liferaft he knew he was going to die.

It hadn’t been much of a ship. A converted fishing trawler carrying used oil-refinery spares from Colombia to Curacao. That wasn’t the only cargo; the more valuable cargo was going to the USA via a complex route of which this was just the first leg. Neither cargo was going to reach its destination. The refinery owner in Curacao would probably be less concerned than the desperate consumers on the streets of Miami who would have to pay a few dollars more for their oblivion, supply-and-demand being what it was.

The steel hull where it supported the propeller shaft had long ago lost its structural integrity to rust and finally disintegrated in the early hours of the morning. The sea flooded through the breach and the ship was doomed. Both crewmen had been below in their bunks at the time, the Captain alone on the bridge. The crew’s accommodation was submerged before the men knew what was happening. The Captain had stepped over the rail as the ship sank beneath him. Despite years of neglect, the liferaft automatically released itself from its mountings and inflated. Where once there had been a ship and a crew there remained only a rubber liferaft and the Captain.


He wasn’t a religious man but when he heard a voice calling and peered out of the canopy he was nearly converted. Gazing down at him with an expression of concern was a man with long hair and a beard. As his mind cleared and his salt-crusted eyes gained focus the Captain realised his raft was lying alongside a sail boat and the bearded man was offering a hand to help him climb the boarding ladder.

“My name is Nathan Jones and this vessel is Adriana,” the man said, “welcome aboard.”

The Captain, rehydrated and fed, was sufficiently recovered to chat with his saviour that evening. Michael Smith was his name but everyone called him Captain and he’d be obliged if Nathan did the same, he said. Over a glass of rum, Nathan explained how he’d come from San Diego and it was to San Diego that he was returning after three years cruising the Caribbean alone on his forty-foot ketch.

“Don’t you miss your family, being away so long?” said the Captain.

“I have no family. There’s just me now. My wife and son were killed five years ago. It’s why I took off, really. Perhaps I was hoping I might be lost along the way but I’ve come to terms with it all now and I’m going back to San Diego to try to start my life again. But what about you? How did you come to be hereabouts, you’re American aren’t you?”

“Yes, from Houston originally. Ten years ago, I took off on my sail boat seeking adventure on the high seas. Long story short, after a couple of misadventures I ended up selling my sail boat and acquiring an old trawler. I based myself in Colombia, hauling crap from one end of the Caribbean Sea to the other, scraping a living. She was all I owned, shit-bucket that she was.”

“Well, at least you were spared. You can replace a boat, you can’t replace people.”

“Damn right. I’ll always owe you for saving my skin, Nathan.”

“Look, do you want me to head into Colombia, we’d be at Cartagena in two or three days? No problem for me, there’s no fixed date for my Panama Canal transit.”

“Hell, no. Nothing for me now in Colombia. I’ll go with you to Panama and check in with the US embassy – I lost all my money and documents in the sinking. Besides, you really don’t want to be too close to the Colombian coast. Nice sailboat like this would be just what the drug guys are looking for.”

“Well, OK then, Captain, Panama it is.”


The Captain was a competent sailor and an engaging companion – the first to be expected, the latter a pleasant surprise for Nathan. During the day, as Adriana made steady progress towards Panama the two men talked about nautical matters and navigation. Each evening they would chat about other things. The Captain realised Nathan was relishing this unexpected opportunity to voice his feelings, rediscover the art of conversation; he showed no hesitation in sharing his personal affairs. This pleased the Captain.

“You know, after the accident I couldn’t bear to live in our house so I sold up and bought a condo in San Diego. I’ve never lived in it – just stuck the best of the furniture in it and locked the door” said Nathan.

“Didn’t you want to rent it out or, maybe, allow a friend to use it?”

“No. I guess I didn’t want any reason to return. I put my affairs in order. Everything I am is in a plastic pouch in the chart table – passport, boat papers, deeds, bank account details, the lot.”

The Captain nodded his understanding and Nathan continued.

“As for friends, well, we lived in a suburb way north of the city, and they were her friends, never really mine. After the funeral, I hardly saw anyone for months and that’s when I decided to set off on my boat.”

“And now you’re going back. A fresh start, a new life.”

“Damn right” said Nathan, “and I’m looking forward to it.”

Two days later Adriana made landfall.


At last it was his turn at the counter in the Immigration Office in the Port of Colon, Panama, and he addressed the immigration official behind the glass partition:

“My name is Nathan Jones of the sailing vessel Adriana bound for San Diego, here is my passport. I have no crew, I’m single-handed” said the Captain.




Venus of the Rags

This odd piece of, er, art is by Michaelangelo Pistoletto and it’s called Venus of the Rags. I photographed it on a visit to the Tate in Liverpool.

I think it depicts a lady looking for her cleanest pair of knickers and thinking it might be time to do the laundry. I may be wrong.

There is some wonderful stuff at the Tate Modern at the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool, by the way. I recently saw a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition and before that a terrific Jackson Pollack display.

Hey, Venus, that pair of pink ones on the left looks OK.

Tea in Peshawar

I was nineteen when I was sent to Peshawar to supervise the start-up of a new flour mill in this city on Pakistan’s northwest frontier, thirty miles from the Khyber Pass. My boss hoped my youthful enthusiasm and enterprise would overcome my lack of experience for there was no one else to send, the order book was bulging. The tale of this three month assignment occupies a couple of chapters in my memoir, The Runner Stone, but here’s a small taste:

The client allocated to me a sort of batman, Rafik, who would take care of my laundry and bring my breakfast and evening meal. For lunch, I would join the office staff in the mill lobby, seated on the floor around a feast of spicy curries and chapattis which we ate with our fingers. Twice each day I’d be interrupted by Rafik delivering tea in a china tea service on a silver tray. He did this at ten o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon wherever I was on the site and no matter in what activity I was engaged.

The mill had been built in an undeveloped area beside a river to the east of the city. One day in June a hoard of people and animals arrived on the far bank and erected a temporary encampment of rough wooden poles, patched tarpaulins and sheets of plastic. I was told these were Shia Muslims assembling to celebrate Muharram. The highest point on the six-story mill building was the stairwell roof and I climbed to it on a rickety wooden ladder left over from the building works, hauling with me an old rattan chair I’d liberated from the office. From this precarious perch I had a splendid view of the activities in the sprawling camp. Several fanatics were engaged in flagellation, enthusiastically whipping their own backs with chain flails. Blood flowed freely from their torn flesh while the crowd wailed and clapped; I found it fascinating if gruesome entertainment.

I became aware of some activity behind me and turned to see the ladder moving.  A china tea service appeared over the parapet followed by a black woolen Jinnah cap and then the sweat-bathed, grimly-grinning face of Rafik. It was three o’clock.