The Piper’s Debt: Chapter One – Mr Speaker


There was no quiet before the storm: just mundanity.

In Shakespeare’s retelling of Richard III, the cripple king is haunted by those slain by the hands “sent before their time” the night before he falls in battle.

“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

Swish. Chop. Finito.

In truth, he probably had a sleepless night staring at the ceiling, before hobbling from his bed to urinate, eat breakfast and then riding in a field to die.

Boring. Ordinary. Mundane.

Swiftly followed by a cataclysmic event that will change the world.

For a transformation to take place, there needs to be a disturbance to the equilibrium. The equilibrium involves dull processes such as making coffee, ignoring fellow dwellers on the bus (specifically named the X41, nicknamed purgatory), listening to a smug presenter on BBC Radio 2, masturbation.

What did the 9/11 terrorists do the night before the attack? Watch crap television whilst nervously glancing at their watches – waiting for the hand to pass twelve, transforming a normal day in September into a date synonymous with death and destruction?

Did Tony Blair and George W Bush really pray together before agreeing to declare war on Iraq? An everyday practice preceding a decision that would result in mortis ad nauseam. Concluding with the oft-chanted, simplistic “Amen”, funeral directors would see a big boom in business; and a literal boom in their neighbourhoods.


“So be it”.

Mundanity before the storm.

What Mr Speaker was doing before committing a truly awful act was sipping a lovely cup of tea. As all authentic Englishmen know, tea is not just an art form; it is a ritual. The bona fide Anglo-Saxon is a master alchemist in the brew. Rapport – never respect, the Englishman never respects you – is only guaranteed if you answer the following question correctly: what comes first – the water or the milk?

Whilst Americans have to recite the Oath of Allegiance, Blighty’s National Citizenship test is porcelain, not patriotism.

And Mr Speaker was the epitome of the true Englishman.

He was certainly not British; an amusing collective noun lumping the vastly different English, Scottish and Welsh into one sweeping category (not forgetting the diverse regions of these countries – never confuse a Mancunian with a Liverpudlian). To be British is to be loud and brash; to drink cans of Stella whilst spouting casual racism; to be a Brexit voter; to holiday in Magaluf, and only eat fish and chips.

Mr Speaker was a quiet, learned man. Instead of sporting the native football jersey one size too small, he was dressed in an immaculate grey suit – tailored, of course – with a crisp white shirt and creases down the trousers. His thick black hair, alive with volume but undoubtedly sensible, did not betray Mr Speaker’s age, but his eyes did. Hidden behind horn-rimmed glasses from yesteryear were his deep brown eyes, weary. One would never too long into his gaze of his Medusa-like qualities emitted from his cold, hard stare.

The Brit – though, an irritant – is harmless. This Englishman was not.

Mr Speaker was exceptionally cruel.

But this was not noticeable, as he took a sip from the exquisitely designed china produced – funnily enough – in America; albeit from a Chinese-American gentleman called something unpronounceable to Mr Speaker’s hushed, dulcet tones. He would never rid himself of the regional accent he so detested – although he was considered well-spoken and educated; which was hardly difficult with the inhabitants of his hometown. Lancastrian, perhaps? A twang of further north of the border? A hint of West Country? His tongue had become so diluted over the years, only he was fully aware of his origins. There was no doubt his accent was attached to a community, but no-one knew which one. Mr Speaker had disowned the sanctum sanctorum of his childhood, replacing it with a smorgasbord of voices, and has since been of no fixed abode.

He was currently in Cambridge, his alma mater. Pembroke College is one of the smaller campuses at the University, but this compact piece of history felt less alien and more charming as a result. Its grandiose stone walls still stood intimidatingly over its occupants, as though they were judging those within. Unashamedly traditional, Pembroke is a thing of make-believe: the stereotype of pretty young things engaging in fantasy before experiencing life outside of the cocoon – bleak disappointment and underachievement. They became no butterflies as promised; they were moths-in-the-making. But for now, they were Harry Potter at Hogwarts leading glorious lives of promiscuous sex and excessive alcohol consumption.

Mr Speaker was sat behind the tall, aged desk of English literature professor, James Dawson. Books, with their spines as creased as professors’ foreheads, were scattered indiscriminately across the room. Volumes were sitting lazily in an oak bookcase, dusty collections were towered precariously on the desk, the floor and even blocking the sunlight from the window sill. Mr Speaker felt quite comfortable in the professor’s battered leather chair, reclining backwards taking another sip.

Aah. The optimum temperature.

A scratched vinyl span on the surprisingly modern record player, situated in the corner of the office – the only sanctuary from the infestation of books. Whilst the sale of razors suffers tremendously in this hipster age, the vinyl has made a revival. The record player, however retro, was the youngest item in the room.

Nigel Kennedy was performing a beautiful rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, currently in the midst of the Spring concerto. The triumphant, optimistic – almost cheeky – movement was contrapuntal to what was to happen next.

Mr Speaker was indeed quite comfortable – comfortable in the knowledge that he will not be disturbed in the literature scholar’s office. Professor Dawson was tied to a chair in the cellar below. He had been there for two days.

The flowing movement of Kennedy’s bow was disturbed by a loud gong echoing from outside. The deep boom bellowed from the Victorian neo-gothic clock tower, standing erect and aloof on the college’s library.

Mr Speaker gently placed down the now-empty tea vessel atop a well-thumbed copy of Mr Dicken’s Great Expectations.

The mundanity was over. This disruption was going to be something particularly nasty, indeed.


Ordsall: The Write Way


If you were to browse the treasure trove of literature contained within Ordsall Library, you would come across the usual prose of Dickens, Bronte and Wilde. Amongst the carefully catalogued books, computer screens and journals, hidden away is one particular shelf. This shelf is dedicated to, perhaps, lesser known writers. Stacked are the works of unfamiliars such as Scantlebury, Sharples and Thomason. The local library facilitates to local writers; and these authors live and reign from Ordsall.

But who are these neighbourhood wordsmiths? Well, you can ask them yourself – they’re only next door. Adjacent to the red-bricked, tidy library is a small hub of creativity. Creeping to the side of the biblotheque is a small room signposted as ‘Ordsall Creative Arts’. When venturing down the narrow path, it causes one to reminisce of secret childhood playhouses – kept secret from responsible grown ups and the mean kids who had a penchant for wedgies and eating glue in the classroom. Or even to the fantasy world of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series. Maybe you need to utter to Maraunder’s Map “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” to track this Room of Requirement.

Passing under a wooden arch, you reach the door; pondering whether or not it requires a password or a special knock. Instead, it opens and you are greeted by a friendly bearded gentleman called Mike Scantlebury.

Originally from Bristol, Mike moved to the North West in the 1970s and has stayed here since. Developing a love for Salford, Mike includes the city in his Amelia Hartliss series – using MediaCityUK and Ordsall as locations in his novels.

Certainly, Ordsall has its own charm. Singer Morrissey started his Smiths days at Salford Lads Club up the road, and Tony Warren used Ordsall’s Coronation Street as inspiration for his long-running ITV soap.

Courtesy of apasciuto, via Flickr

Courtesy of apasciuto, via Flickr

A few miles up the road is MediaCityUK: homing the likes to the BBC, ITV and studios hosting anything from the Jeremy Kyle Show to 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. Stretching along the Salford Quays, in place of its industrial past are swanky, modern flats, trendy restaurants and bars, and the impressive sight of the Lowry Theatre.

“Ordsall has got a lot to be thankful for the BBC for”, Mike chimes.

In 2011, a producer from BBC Radio 4 came over to the area and set up a creative writing group. The idea was to encourage people to learn more about radio drama and even produce a radio play that might get on air. Three years on, the creative writing group is still going strong and they are here in the Ordsall Creative Arts room. Today, they are talking about weddings.

But first, I am introduced to Simon Pegg. Not the Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz star. He already knows how to write – at the end of the day, he’s been nominated for BAFTAs and British Comedy Awards. But a peg called Simon. A wooden clothes peg with the name ‘Simon’ scrolled on it with a marker pen. Other groups usually offer a cup of tea by means of an introduction. But this is not any other group, as Jonathan highlights by offering:

“The bride offered me her cheek to lick.”

Initially I thought he said “her teeth to lick”. But let’s be honest, neither are pleasant to think about.

The actor, not the peg. (Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

The actor, not the peg. (Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, weddings. The group are discussing wedding photos and videos. Salix Homes, as part of a pilot scheme, have distributed funding to various local groups: St Clement’s Church, the Community Café, the Health Improvement Team and Creative Writing. Over five sessions, the group discuss anything matrimonial related: dresses, memories, receptions and ceremonies.

Sitting around a long table, as though they are King Arthur’s knights albeit in a room covered in a hideous shade of yellow in Salford, the group partake in activities such as research, discussion and – well – writing; it would be terribly disappointed if a creative writing didn’t write.

Mike leads the group on a writing exercise that involves them using their senses other than sight to describe a church ceremony. As a journalist, it is my role to be an impartial observer but with the welcoming smiles and the gentle encouragement from the group, this session involves my creative writing debut. But my debut is less important and interesting than the contributions from the group. Whilst I meekly suggested the smell of incense from the priest, Jonathan suggests licking the bride and one cynic gave the remark “bring me more wine”.

Courtesy of rosarion94, via Flickr

Courtesy of rosarion94, via Flickr

“It’s very important to be in a group of writers,” advises Mike, “They know what it is like to write. No offense to your mothers, sisters, brothers or next-door neighbours, but they can’t sympathise like a writer can.”

Indeed, whilst your fellow writers may encourage you with constructive criticism, your next-door neighbour might send for the authorities. One critique from the group was “the three-legged dog was a nice touch”.

“The worst thing you can do is talk to someone who does not know what you are experiencing. To be able to talk people and say, you’ve missed a day or you are having trouble with plotting, characterisation or dialogue not being believable, is just brilliant.”

The feeling around the room is not one of standing in front of the X Factor judges whilst they humiliatingly deconstruct your work; it is a discussion. The discussion does, however, tend to veer off course.

The group are now researching traditional and non-traditional weddings. A projector and screen that I have not seen since primary school ten years ago is pulled up, and the display is of the most academic and revered routine of research: Google.

There is a dog in the Pixar film Up which has a translator broadcasting his every thought. It will start to have a long discussion and half way through will break off with the cry of “Squirrel!” This is somewhat fitting for the way the group operates. During the session, they embark on a discussion over weddings featuring druids at Stonehenge and suddenly they are talking about the allusive ‘10k’ group who received more funding. When talking about wedding photography, they decide to look at funny wedding videos on YouTube.

But this attitude is not irritating – it is rather charming. Work is achieved, but so is play. The term ‘community’ is used far too loosely nowadays but it seems very befitting to this creative writing group. These sessions could have been easily held over the kitchen table at Madge’s or in the back garden of Sylvia. And that perhaps purports to its success: it’s not threatening, it’s friendly. Whilst you might ask to borrow sugar from Jonathan, you could ask advice over a few paragraphs written that morning.

Writing is a personal process and the group facilitates that intimacy through shared anecdotes, jokes and tall tales. Whether it is the story of Mike’s brother’s wedding with a special cameo from flared trousers or the time when the photographer somehow over-exposed the film and lost all the photos so the guests had to re-stage the wedding at a later date for the captured memories.

This brings the group’s focus to a modern context. Replacing the flares are equally silly clothing as the Googled bridal dresses show. You would not have the same problem with wedding photos as smartphones capture your every movement.

Ordsall Creative Writing group are also prepared to embrace 21st Century communications. They have their very own Facebook page (“2 new people have liked it today!”) and Twitter account.

As the cups of tea are supped and the madness chronicled, the group turn to the micro-blogging site and think how to condense this session into 140 characters; I’ve struggled with 1300 words. They decide on:

“Weddings discussion: the sound of the bride farting, the sight of wedding cake falling, the touch of bride’s teeth, sweet smell of… #threeleggeddog”

And there is no better way to encapsulate Ordsall Creative Writing.

Part of the Ordsall Creative Writing Collection

Part of the Ordsall Creative Writing Collection

You can follow the group on Twitter via @OrdsallTrust. They meet every Wednesday at 10am, at Ordsall Creative Arts near the library.