• 25 Jun

    Why the “crowd work versus material” debate is old and needs to die.

    This week I read this article in the Guardian. It’s a bit of a non article, dredging up the tired debate about the role of crowd work over material in live comedy.

    Specifically that the myriad of crowd-work clips posted by comedians on social media has altered the comedy landscape for the worse.

    This binary perspective on live comedy is irritating. There is room for both crowd work and material. There should be both. Most nights need both. Because crowd work isn’t better or worse than material. It’s just different. But just like material, you can have fantastic, one-of-a-kind crowd work and bad, lazy, hackneyed crowd work.

    Also, this article doesn’t make the distinction between hosting and doing a spot. I would argue that the primary role of the MC is to make the crowd feel comfortable, part of something unique and know they can relax with a safe pair of hands. It’s also the role of the host not to try and outshine the acts who have meticulously prepared their sets. So crowd work is a more natural fit for the host.

    When I’m hosting and I fall into do material, I feel I’ve cheated. Just a little. Similarly when crowd work happens that is unprepared but it drifts into things I’ve said before, largely because as people tend to give similar responses – especially when set up to do so. “Any students in?” “Anyone on a date tonight” being solid examples.

    It’s like doing short form improv. As a performer, you feel a little dirty when you ‘improvise’ a line you’ve said before, merely because, again, people tend to give the same suggestions for short form games (pineapple, dildo, submarine etc). It’s our job as improv performers to be fresh and unique with every line or act out; it’s the same principle with crowd work.

    Of course crowd work is a better fit for social media. A lot of scripted material leans heavily on structure: set up, pay off, repetition and call backs. Comics take their crowd on a journey. You can’t easily capture that in a thirty second clip.

    But I also think it’s a shame that the dominance of crowd work on this social media landscape has distorted the perception of what a live comedy experience is. I’ve heard tell of people turning up to a comedy chow, having only been exposed to social media soundbites, expecting just crowd work, and being disappointed when they see comics not talking to them as they perform their act.

    Back to improv. Crowd work is the perfect use of improv in a stand-up setting. As someone who has been doing both for years, I can say with confidence that they utilise different parts of the brain. Improv requires being completely present and in the moment, actively listening to everything being said and reading the room. Improv isn’t about you, it’s about everything that’s going on around you.

    When I’m doing material, conversely, I spend a lot of the time trying to remember what I’ve written until it becomes automatic, like muscle memory. It’s only then that you can be so present you can make that mental flit between crowd interaction and prepared material. And to be honest I spend most of my time on stage wrestling with these two mindsets. I’ve still not cracked it.

    Because here’s another thing. If you CAN do great crowd work, it’s arguably much more fun for the performer than it is to do material. It’s worth acknowledging here that there’s always a little touch of jealousy from those comics who can’t do crowd work versus those who can. I think this is a shame and misplaced. It’s like the wider, “stand up versus improv” tribalism crap that exists. I think they both complement each other perfectly, as epitomised in the very best crowd work.

    Truth is, they are very different skills. Some comics are excellent writers who hone their material and craft into pure art, but not very quick in the moment. Other comics are superb at being present and lighting fast, but they are not so strong with their material because they prefer to lean on their spontaneity over meticulously hammering their material until it’s razor sharp and bulletproof. I truly believe the best comics are the ones who can do both. They are the ones who have the funny bones.

    By admin Uncategorized
  • 01 Sep

    New comedy podcast series Is here!

    Hello world.

    Ben a bit off grid for a while on here. No real reason. But here I am with monstrously exciting news that I have launched a brand new comedy podcast about history – described by Miranda Sawyer in The Guardian as “Properly, sneakily funny.”

    History for You with Douglas and Hugh is a collaboration with my old chum and writing partner, the wonderfully talented writer James Devonshire. We go back years from our time together at Comedy Central, and about a decade ago we had a sitcom pilot optioned by ABC Studios in the US and Warren Littlefield, the former President of NBC. When the man who had a hand in Seinfeld picks up your script, you know something’s working.

    I flew out to LA for an incredibly intimidating meeting at Disney Studios to discuss what happens next – which was nothing. Of course, the pilot never got made but it was a tantalising glimpse into the big leagues, we were both grateful for the experience and knew that we should collaborate more in the future.

    After life getting in the way – marriages, kids, me moving to Denmark – we’ve not worked together on anything since, but me and James always stayed in touch and this led to what you can now insert into your ears.

    The weekly podcast is an affectionate send up of the hugely popular history podcast The Rest is History which me and James both love. We also love our history in general and so we thought it would be a lot of fun to dive into various key moments from the past and make up something silly and entertaining but rooted in fact.

    Expect surreal flights of fancy as your two hosts, historians Douglas Wrattle and Hugh Canard take you through fascinating topics such as pirates, William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Boudicca, The Great Fire of London, The Gunpowder Plot, highwaymen and ghosts!

    We really enjoy making this series – we laughed a LOT – and I can’t wait for you to hear it.

    History for You with Douglas and Hugh is out now on all major podcast platforms.

    For all updates, you can follow the podcast on X (but we all know I mean twitter) @History4UPod and on Facebook.

    As you were.

    By admin Performances
  • 25 Feb

    Chapter Five

    It was the best shower I had in ages. Can’t tell you how long I was in there, but I took my time. After all, there was a lot to wash away. Jackie’s death and the chase to the river had sobered me up something rotten. My head was pounding all over again and I needed a top up. I took a fresh white towel from the neatly-folded pile on the shelf in the bathroom, gave myself a cursory rubdown then strode into the lounge. Let the air finish the job. I sought out the drinks cabinet and helped myself to a large Rémy Martin. Then another. Cognac is terribly moreish, especially when nude.

    It was a small apartment. They usually are in Paris. The steam from the shower had crept into the lounge so I opened a window to clear the air. The outside sounds hummed in tune with my throbbing brain. Rue d’Assas was a narrow street. Anonymous. No shops nor cafés, an alley people cut through to reach somewhere better. The perfect place to lie low. Apartment twelve was high enough to prevent any unwanted visitors dropping by without warning. Did I say it was small? Well it was. Too small for me, but then I like my space. Minimal furnishings. You can’t spend three years in Copenhagen and not learn to appreciate their take on furniture. Those Danes know their interiors, I’ll give them that. Solid, clean lines. No clutter. No waste. Stylish. Just like me.

    After the kerfuffle on the bridge, naturally I had to make myself scarce. As soon as Black Suit had dispatched herself to the Great Beyond I had slipped back into the crowd that had formed behind me on the south side. Fortunately no-one tried to stop me. I had disappeared into the warren of the Left Bank but I knew I had to move fast. I was now directly implicated in a very public suicide, no nearer to even starting my mission and people had seen me waving a gun around. That’s never good.

    All the effects I had requested were lying out on the bed. Fresh underwear, toiletries, a Beretta with several loaded clips, a thousand francs, pack of Rothmans, passport in the name of Gerard Duchamp – that last one was particularly impressive; how Jackie got hold of a dodgy passport so fast I’ll never know, but that’s why he’s the best in The Business – and of course, a brand new suit. I was right. Italian. Canali. Charcoal, double vent, single breasted, two button. Baby blue cotton Givenchy shirt, wingtip collar, oval silver cufflinks, charcoal socks, slate suede Aubercy Derbys. Gorgeous. Excited, I slipped on my new armour. As expected, like a glove. I raised my glass. Thanks Jackie boy. Appreciated.

    The third cognac righted me on an even keel.  Time to take care of business. I looked at my watch. 4pm. Where does the time go? Must have been in that shower a good while. May even had taken a nap. Can’t quite remember. Anyway. I needed to get across the city to Chez Eugene in Montmartre and intercept this Gadbois chap. Find out what he knows about this Garibaldi blade and why it’s so damn important that the bodies had already started piling up and I had been forced to punch a monkey. Whatever it was, someone wanted it pretty badly. And they were willing to ruin my suit to get it. Who was Black Suit working for? Why did she scream about ‘the Commonwealth’ before shooting herself? And why did she top herself? She was very attractive. Right now, nothing made sense. I had another drink.

    Reckoned it was about three miles to Montmartre so shouldn’t take me more than an hour on foot. Didn’t know the way but I knew I had to head north over the Seine then shoot for the bloody great hill with the fat church on top. If I got lost, I could always ask a chap where the Moulin Rouge was and make my way from there. There isn’t a Frenchman in this city who doesn’t know the location of that little night spot. As for the square and the venue itself, I hoped some memory of my time with Jackie would creep back in, but I honestly had no recollection.

    I love stumbling around Paris. She wears her filth on her sleeve. Dirty and proud. Her buildings are tall and mighty but they are cracked and broken. So much grey. It should be depressing, but it’s not. Easiest way to woo a woman? Take her to Paris. Take her in Paris. Hell, sometimes just talking about the damn place is enough. The food, the booze, the music, the dancing…it’s all sticky grist for the lust mill. Just don’t hang around too long. Paris is a place for once upon a time, not happily ever after.

    You know what they say about Paris? It’s where divorced men go to die. That’s what I say anyway. I’ve seen enough poor buggers, spirits and balances broken by vengeful or greedy women, sink down in between her cracks, never to return. Like Mickey One Leg. Dumpy chap from Nebraska. Talk about unlucky. He actually had no legs at all. Nazi grenade took most of one on Omaha, lost the other in a distillery explosion actually in Omaha. We used to laugh about that. They said it was an accident, we used to laugh about that too. Anyway, he got lumbered with the nickname in between incidents and decided to keep it. Felt it gave him an air of mystery with the ladies. It didn’t, but that was Mickey. Deluded to the last.

    I first met him in ’59, outside the Moulin Rouge arguing with a Belgian sailor – the worst kind of sailor if you ask me. All fists and spittle. Anyway, this Flemish knucklehead was clearly going to flatten Mickey so I stepped in. I do that sometimes. Moments later the three of us were down a back alley behind the club and I had the Belgian sobbing for his mother. To show his gratitude, Mickey invited me inside. We got drinking, we got talking. Turned out, six months before, he’d been cleaned out by his wife. She’d gone back to Nebraska and shacked up with a maize magnate from Lincoln, but that’s by the by. Anyway. Mickey adored her. When she walked out, he lost it, then lost it even more in the bordellos of Paris. He gathered up what was left of the generous insurance pay out he received after the explosion took his last leg, wheeled himself on board a cheap steamer bound for Europe, bought a large bottle of something amber and kept on going. Drank his insides out, poor chap. I never saw him again. Later found out he met his end slumped in his wicker wheelchair, out of his skull on crème de cassis, careering towards the oncoming traffic on the Champs Elysees. Never stood a chance.[1]

    Losers like Mickey are ten a penny by the Seine. Paris attracts the heartbroken. Explains why all the creative types here are so miserable. They’ve turned being grumpy into an art form, banging on about lost loves, loneliness, all that guff. Jackie once introduced me to that Aznavour chap on a cabaret night opening for Piaf. Interesting little fellow. Armenian, but there was no mileage in waving that flag so he decided to try on being French. Better fit for the sorrow he was peddling. I told him I thought he had a great voice but he should stop warbling on about heartache and doomed relationships. I may have gone so far as to tell him he was a bit OTT. Probably shouldn’t have, but I’d had a few. Besides. I’m right. Relationships aren’t supposed to last. No sense pining over the inevitable. Draw a line. Pick yourself up. Move on.

    I collected what I needed and left the apartment. I already had a Beretta from the altercation with the lemur, so I just took the spare clips, pocketed the Rothmans and Zippo, loaded up my wallet with francs, took one last look at myself in the mirror in the lounge then strolled out through the narrow alleyways. The star batsman has left the pavilion.

    After a few wine stops on the way, I climbed the steps to Montmartre reached the Place du Tetre with a renewed sense of vim and vigour. Or should that be vin and vinegar? Oh that’s very good. I’ll definitely be using that again. The square was, as expected, very pretty. Crumbling, cobbled and quaint. I soon spied the venue. Chez Eugene. No recollection. Then again it was pretty standard fare. All boxes ticked.

    Outside, wicker chairs clustered round small metal tables under an oxblood canopy. A couple of fusty-looking aproned penguins milled in and out, holding trays of complicated drinks for the handful of patrons who were all furiously smoking and trying a bit too hard to look ‘interesting’. Some were eating food. Reminded me that I STILL hadn’t eaten and by now I must confess I was feeling a bit wobbly after all those cognacs and wine. Needed to stuff something down me and right now a heavy slice of cow and a bottle of red was precisely what the doctor ordered. I checked my hair with my hand, refastened my jacket, lit a cigarette and walked inside.

    To be continued…

    [1] They buried Mickey in Père Lachaise. He told me he always wanted to be buried at sea. Poor sod didn’t even get his dying wish. For some reason I still have his snuff box.

  • 18 Feb

    Chapter Four

    My suit was ruined. Normally I’d be livid, but right now I had other things on my mind. Like the friend dying in my arms. Jacques had cheated death many times. He’s a warhorse with a will of iron and claret for blood, most of which was now gushing onto my fine woollen trousers. I’m no medical man but I’ve been doing this long enough to tell from the crimson he was gargling, at least one lung was punctured. We both knew he was done for. As I cradled his head, Jacques coughed up a hoarse whisper:

    ‘Rue d’Assas. Douze…’

    Jacques thrust a set of keys into my hand and his eyes glazed over. He was gone. But the killer was not.

    No time to grieve. Not my style. Nor Jacques’ actually. We’ve seen comrades fall over the years. Good people. Deaths processed and filed away as ‘collateral’. Why should ours be any different? I may be absolutely fabulous, but I’m not completely deluded. I am a tool of the trade. Just another statistic. A really handsome one.

    I leapt up. The shattered window at the front of the café gave me clean access onto the street, where as you’d expect, an altercation had begun outside. Two people scrabbling around on the ground. Only one of them had a gun.

    Some noble passer-by had wrestled the assassin to the ground to stop him fleeing the scene. Brave. Stupid, but brave. Still, even if the killer wasn’t rolling around on the pavement, his clobber made him easy to spot in a crowd: jet black blazer and trousers, crimson shirt and tie. More a uniform than a suit. Like a waiter in a cheap Florentine nightspot. Curious. Even more curious, the assassin wasn’t a ‘he’ at all. Even amongst such a frantic fracas I spied athletic but familiar, distinct curves. Long, jet hair scraped back into a tight ponytail. Stunning, in a murderous kind of way. If that’s your thing. I’ve had encounters with female agents in my time. Mostly professional, some romantic, none positive. Don’t get me wrong. Women have a distinct advantage over men in the field – and I’ll tell you why.

    Now, what I’m about to disclose is a bit of a trade secret. Not many will admit this, so good thing you’ve got old Hugo Dean here to spill the beans. And you better pour yourself a stiff drink to go with those beans. Here it comes. Ready? Good. Women are stronger than men.

    Why? They’re great survivors. Excellent exit strategists. Gives them that lethal edge. Men just blunder from one bloody mess to the next. We are drawn to the excitement, to the bright lights. We have no idea what’s coming and we rely on charm, fists and a fat gin to get us out of a jam. We improvise. We’re great at that. We love playing all those silly little games along the way – even if it lands us in a jam. Women are all about the long game. They do what they have to do to get where they need to be. And they do it all the time. It’s really quite admirable. Men always get stuck on the rules of whatever game we’re playing. That’s our great weakness. Fair play. Sportsmanship. It’s maddening, because even I know there’s no place for fair play in this game. So ask a woman to do the job, she’s not distracted by such trifles. She’s focused. Razor sharp. To do whatever it takes. That’s the difference. So why are men still on top? Why are we winning? Simple. We won’t let them know they’re stronger. We keep them down. Some women have cottoned on – and that’s the most deadly kind there is – but for most women, it’s a daily grind, men are doing the grinding and we’re doing a bang up job.

    The closest I ever came to having my ticket punched was also the one time a woman was sent in to do the punching. I was in Denmark during the back end of the 40s, helping Foggy[1] and the Princes round up any Nazi snitches still lurking about Copenhagen. Many had gone to ground and it was a swine of a job. Didn’t help that those pesky Ruskies were making a play for any wretched, flattened grey country now up for grabs after Hitler put a bullet in his face.

    Places like Vienna and Warsaw got the worst of it, but straight after the War even those placid Scandis fell under the cosh of the Soviet crime tsars – and they didn’t appreciate chaps like me sniffing around the place, still doing our bit for King and Country. It was a bad business, but the herring was top notch.

    Anyway. I was enjoying a much-needed beer in a grubby little basement bodega when a ferocious vixen on Stalin’s payroll got the drop on me. I should have seen it coming and I took one in the leg as punishment. She strolled in and sprayed the entire establishment with rounds from a PPS. Took out the barman and entire clientele in the process. It was a bloodbath.

    I escaped by diving behind the bar to avoid all the bullets and seized the moment when she reloaded to take her out by hurling a full bottle of snaps in her vague direction. I was hurling blind but the noise and ceasefire told me I’d got lucky. Ghastly stuff, snaps by the way. Tastes like medicine and compost. No tears over that loss. She was down and out, so I got the hell out of there. I hobbled across town with all the discretion I could muster and patched myself up in one of Foggy’s safe houses by the Lakes.

    Point is, that woman got closer than anyone before or since. In that sort of job, a gentleman would consider how to take down the target with as little mess as possible. Not her. She didn’t think twice about murdering innocent bystanders. She did what she had to do to get to me. She played the end game. She gave me my only bullet hole. And I wasn’t going to hang about to get a second.

    Quick as a flash, I dove out of the window, accidentally taking a table with me. Clumsy. By the time I’d freed myself from the furniture, Black Suit had escaped the fumbling clutches of this have-a-go hero and she was up and running. So was I. She was fast. So was I. It had been a while and my knees aren’t what they were, but these legs secured me the position of left wing for the Charterhouse First XV[2] back in the day, and I’m proud to say they’ve lost none of their pace.

    As we raced down the street I thought about firing off a shot to the leg there and then. Too many people. I couldn’t afford any more collateral damage. The paperwork alone is a bitch. Besides, who knows what this villain would do when backed into a corner? Cyanide works faster than answers. I had to bring her down the old-fashioned way. I had to make her think she could outrun me. That she had a chance. Which, of course, she didn’t.

    Black Suit swerved left down Rue Bonaparte. She was heading for the river. She feigned left again, but switched right down a side street, striking an old woman and a pigeon in her path. Baguettes and feathers everywhere. I jumped over the fallen heap of confusion and kept on her heels. It would have helped had she been in heels. She was as agile as a panther, able to bank sharp turns much more efficiently than this lumbering juggernaut.

    Left down an alley she raced. Trying to shake me off. Nice try. I skidded around the corner, only to be met with gunfire. The devious witch had found an alcove halfway down the alley and was waiting for me. I had run straight into a burst of bullets like a bally amateur. Word to the wise. If you’re ever thinking to pursue a professional assassin at high speed, on foot, with half a bottle of bourbon inside you, don’t. The heartburn is brutal.

    I leapt behind a dustbin for cover, grabbing the lid and hurling in the vague direction of my quarry. A desperate move I admit, but I wanted to catch her off balance and buy me more time. I couldn’t make out what weapon she had. The blunted, flat sound told me it was some sort of snub-nosed pistol. Probably a PPK. Nifty little toys those. Accurate and discreet. Sticks a bit but overall, a sound choice. It was certainly working for my crimson-tie chum right now.

    A bullet zinged through the metal, slamming into the brickwork above my head. I drew my Beretta and, still crouched behind the bins, returned a couple of rounds. No good. She was dug in. The only shot I could get would be a headshot. She knew that. Clever. More bullets scorched the ground before me, deliberately to keep me pinned down, then she turned and made a sharp right. I gave chase once more. This alley opened up soon onto the Seine, where it would be too open for another exchange of lead. The sprint was back on.

    Black Suit motored across the road, launching herself over at least one car bonnet towards the bank of the river. Dodging the oncoming traffic, I hit the far pavement. She had wheeled right, towards Notre Dame. I followed. In the open I soon gained ground. Any moment now I could easily bring her down with a swift tackle and get answers.

    My heart pounded, my lungs a furnace, but I kept on going. Before I could land my prey, Black Suit did something that surprised everyone. Turning sharp left onto the bridge across the river, she stopped sharp and grabbed a street artist from his little stool. Black Suit spun the terrified man round in front, her arm round his throat. She was using his writhing body as a human shield.

    Just as I made it onto the bridge, she fired a single shot which whistled past my ear. Jesus! I did one of my fancy forward rolls to avoid any more shots and stopped short, about twenty feet from Black Suit. People had fled the bridge. Panic. But no more gunshots. I rose to confront my target on the bridge, my gun by my side. Now it was only us.

    Black Suit stood stock still before me, her gun held to the temple of the poor artist. I was right, it was a PPK. She waited for me to react. This was the first time I got a good look at her. Sharp features, full crimson lips, large dark, angry eyes. Southern European maybe? Italian? Catching my breath, I assessed the situation.

    The hostage was one of those irritating street scribblers who charge a fortune to sketch a portrait of you that doesn’t look like you. I hate those rogues. Maybe one less on the streets of Paris would be no bad thing. And the brief did say I was to complete my mission by ‘any means’. Black Suit knew exactly how to stand to ensure I couldn’t hit her without also taking down her captive. Then again, I could shoot the artist first then bring down Black Suit.

    I raised my gun and took aim. I tightened my grip. My breath slowed, levelling the sight. We stood on the bridge in silence. Eyes locked. Frozen. Stalemate. Who would make the first move?

     ‘Power to the Commonwealth!’ screamed Black Suit. And with that, she shot herself in the head.

    Read Chapter Five here

    [1] Foggy, AKA Mogens Fog. Big wig in the Danish Resistance. Clever bastard. For a more detailed account read my thrilling romp Cold Shoulder. But you’ll have to wait. It’s not finished. Trust me, it’s worth the wait.

    [2] 58 caps, 69 tries, 16 minor injuries and 12 scores with the girls’ convent school down the road.

  • 11 Feb

    Chapter Three

    ‘Why did you not just shoot them?’

    It was a fair question. Looking back, my strategy for dispatching the heavies in the hotel ended up being far from discrete. The opposite I’d say. I mean, I did break a door and ruin someone’s lunch. I waited until after the waiter brought our drinks, then explained as best I could.

    ‘If I’d shot them, old boy, they’d know it was me.  It’s what I do.’
    ‘Shooting people?’
    ‘Yes.’ It really was. I’ve shot a lot of people.

    Jacques gave me one of his looks and took a gulp of a sumptuous Burgundy so treacly you could spread it on your brioche.

    ‘You’re an idiot,’ he scoffed.
    ‘No, I’m not. I’ve just had an off day, that’s all.’
    ‘Does not sound so off to me. You rendered five people unconscious before lunch.’
    ‘And a lemur.’
     ‘How did you know it was a lemur?’
    ‘He told me it was a lemur.’
    ‘Have you ever seen a lemur?
    ‘No. But why lie?’

    I chuckled. Jackie was right.  I didn’t know what a lemur was. I’d heard the word, but to be honest I thought it was a type of cat. Or a car. A Lotus Lemur. Sounds about right. Good old Jackie. Always there to buy me a drink and keep me in line. I gazed up at the two fat Orientals perching above us, and took a hit from my huge bourbon. Four Roses. Impressed they had it behind the bar, but then again, Les Deux Magots is no ordinary cafe.

    We always met here. This was ‘the usual place’. It’s possibly the most famous café in Paris. Fancy types have been falling through its doors for decades. Scribblers, thinkers, doodlers, drinkers. I think Hemingway once fought a pig in here. Or a lion. One of the two. Anyway. These days, famous actors from both sides of the Atlantic often stumble around the premises, failing to find the exit. This is why we always met here. With everyone so busy gawping at sozzled celebrities, no one ever notices two impossibly handsome men in the corner, quietly getting down to business.

    ‘So,’ I began. ‘You got everything I asked for?’
    ‘Almost. It is all in the apartment, mon ami. But I suggest you prepare yourself.’
    ‘How so?’
    ‘I could not get you the Crombie.’

    I tried not to look disappointed, but I was. I love a Crombie. A suit favoured by kings and presidents, don’t you know. And that chap from Bristol. The one who made it in pictures, he swears by them. Gary[1] something. Can’t remember. Anyway. Point is, you always look sharp in a Crombie. Timeless and classic.

    ‘Well what have you got me?’ I asked. ‘I can’t stroll around Paris is a cheap suit.’
    ‘I do not think you will complain… come. We drink here, I take you to my place.’
    ‘What abut my croque monsieur?’ I still really wanted one.
    ‘I’ll fix you something at mine,’ Jackie purred. ‘Besides, I have not seen you in a long time. It would be très jolie to have you back at mine.’
    ‘Sounds kinky’, I said. ‘Will there be anyone else there?’
    ‘Do you want there to be?’
    ‘On what?’
    ‘On what you’re in the mood for.’

    Now it was my turn to smile. He knew what I was getting at. Oh yes.

    ‘Don’t you have work to do?’ Jacques grunted, waving a ridiculously thin cigarette towards the brief on the table. He was right. I sighed. No time for hanky panky. Not today. I picked up the manila envelope and opened it. It was a single piece of paper with three lines of typed text, short and to the point:


    Top Floor uses code for all their communications, which is extremely irritating. I’m a busy man, the last thing I need is cryptic gobbledygook cluttering up my brain. When you’re in a tight spot, with a dubious Frenchman as your only ally, instructions need to be as clear as possible. Where do I go? Who do I sleep with? Will I need an umbrella?

    There was a silence as I digested the words on the page. Jackie scanned the room and the street beyond.

    ‘What is it?’ He asked.
    ‘It’s a puzzler.’

    I handed Jacques the brief. I knew I could trust him; I wasn’t worried about that. He has always been a vital chum in the field. After all this time I’m still not quite sure who he works for – that’s how good he is – but he’s always done right by me and now I needed him more than ever. Jacques eased his wine down on the table, retrieved a crooked pair of round wire-frame spectacles from his waistcoat ticket pocket and perched them on his nose. He read the brief just once, then placed it face down on the table. He removed his spectacles, placed them back in his pocket. He picked up his glass. There was another long silence.

    ‘Well?’ I asked.

    The silence continued as Jacques chewed his wine. I started to twitch. I was hot, bothered and STILL hadn’t had a shower. I also needed the toilet. Eventually he spoke.

    ‘Well? What do you make of it?’
    ‘It’s very short,’ I said.
    ‘That, Hugo, is why it is called a brief.’

    Clever French bastard. Always one step ahead. I stared at the words on the page, hoping they’d turn into something that made sense. It wasn’t code, I knew that much. I also knew what ‘any means’ meant. Now I wished I’d received the brief before I got on the plane. This morning would have played out very differently, believe you me. You never feel more alive than when you kill a man. They say it numbs your senses. Hogwash. Everything is heightened. Colours are brighter, sounds are sharper. Even food tastes better. Murder is like chewing on the best kind of peyote, but I wouldn’t advise either. Certainly not both, and definitely not at the same time. Tried it once. Dreadful mistake.[2]

    I sculled my bourbon and clicked at the waiter to bring us another round. This required brain power and my brain works best when wet.

    ‘Seems to me,’ Jacques said, ‘that they want you to find the Sword of Garibaldi. And it is of the utmost important that you do so as soon as possible.’
    ‘Sounds like another wild goose chase to me,’ I snorted. I was itching for my next drink.
    ‘Perhaps,’ Jacques shrugged, ‘but it is clear your precious Department wants it pretty badly. “Any means necessary.”’
    ‘What’s this Garibaldi Blade then?’ I asked.

    I’d never heard of it. Top Floor sends me after various trinkets now and then, but more often than not I come back empty handed and no one bats an eye. Probably a tax dodge.

    ‘Mon ami, I have no idea,’ smiled Jackie. ‘But I suggest you start with Monsieur Gadbois.’

    Our drinks arrived. I sank mine and ordered another before the waiter even turned his back on our table.

    ‘And who’s this Garibaldi chap?’ I asked. ‘Some grubby wop, never done a day’s work in his life?’

    Jacques stared at me long enough to tell me he wasn’t just ‘some grubby wop’. Shouldn’t have said that, not sure why I did. I felt lightheaded. My third bourbon arrived and I downed that in one too. This would blow away the cobwebs. Before sending away the waiter once more, however, I asked for a glass of water. For Jacques, you understand. The poor man must be pretty drunk by now.

    ‘So, Garibaldi,’ I said, in a voice so loud it surprised both of us, ‘he live around here?

    It was then that Jacques got quite cross. Perhaps it was the wine. His face always turned red when annoyed. It looked very funny. I stifled a chuckle. I was no longer in the mood for this stupid mission. I just wanted to spend the afternoon getting smashed right here in this chair. Paris is a city for lounging and drinking. Time means less here. Actions have fewer consequences. Good job I was with Jackie Boy to keep me focused, even if he had turned into a grumpy old crosspatch. I put my glass down near the table, which for some reason had started to move. Taking care to speak clearly, I asked Jacques to tell me all he knew.

    Turns out Garibaldi didn’t live in Paris. Turns out he was dead. Died last century. This was why, suggested Jacques, I hadn’t heard of him. Jacques was right. I have no interest in history. The only dates that interests me are either on a bottle of Krug or waiting for me at the bar. I’m a man of the moment. Live for now, that’s my motto. Or is it carpe diem? One of the two. To me, history is old duffers asleep in stuffy libraries. I leave history where it belongs. In the past. Ooh, that’s good. I’ll remember that one and use it again when I’m next talking to someone about history. But at that moment it was Jacques doing the talking and probably about the job, so I forced myself to listen.

    ‘General Giuseppe Garibaldi,’ he began, ‘was the father of modern Italy. He-’
    ‘So he was a soldier?’
    ‘He was many things, Hugo,’ smiled Jacques, clearly enjoying his lesson. ‘Soldier, politician, revolutionary, warrior, leader. He was the people’s champion. He was a force of nature. He was a thief and a hero. He was -’
    ‘A biscuit!’

    That was the best joke I’ve made in a long time.

     ‘He was,’ Jackie continued, ‘one of the most important Italian figures of the nineteenth century. All the great intellectuals of the time adored him.’
    ‘I see,’ I said, not quite seeing. ‘So what’s this sword business? And this is France not Italy. Why the hell am I in Paris?’
    ‘That I do not know. As I said, here’s your jumping-off point.’

    Jacques prodded the brief with a long finger.

    ‘Come on, Jackie,’ I said, folding and tucking the brief inside my jacket pocket. ‘Please tell me you know this Gadbois fellow?’
    ‘I know of him’, replied Jacques. ‘Purely by chance, I can assure you.’

    I leaned in. Now I was finally getting interested.

    ‘Marcel Gadbois lives in the heart of Paris. Teaches at the Sorbonne. As a matter of fact, I just finished reading his latest work. Nineteenth-century European revolutionary politics. It was, how you say, illuminating. Anyway. The biography on the inside cover said that Gadbois lives in Montmartre. When I saw his photograph on the back of the book I realised I had seen him before.’
    ‘Go on.’
    ‘He takes his dinner at the same bistro I often enjoy. He’s there every night. I don’t blame him. It is superb. They have, how you English say, “spiffing steak.”’
    ‘Never mind the beef, old boy. The name?’
    ‘Chez Eugene. On Place du Tetre. We’ve been there before.’

    I stared at Jackie’s nose.

    ‘You remember?’ he nudged. ‘That beautiful square in the shadow of the Sacré-Cœur. We had a wager that you could not drink for 24 hours straight.’

    I winced. Must have lost that bet.

    ‘You lasted 26,’ smiled Jacques. ‘I remember you serenading a short, blonde waitress Au Lapin Agile while standing on the piano.’
    I grimaced. ‘Did it work?’
    ‘You were naked.’
    ‘Well this is fantastic news, Jackie!’ I said, trying not to leap from my chair. ‘Not the nude singing bit. This meeting, right here, now. It’s meant to be. Me calling you, you knowing about this froggy boffin. My stars, someone’s smiling down on me! Probably making up for the whole monkey business at the airport.’

    This time I did leap from my chair.

    ‘Come on, let’s head to yours, get me right as rain and this evening we can lean on this Gadbois character over a spiffing steak!’
    ‘Before we go, I recommend you wipe that off.’

    He gestured to my face. I felt my top lip and looked at my fingers. I still had the makeshift moustache I’d smeared on back at the hotel. What a prize tit!

    ‘Jackie, you absolute swine! When were you going to tell me about that?’
    ‘I just did.’

    Good old Jackie.

    ‘Righto,’ I said. ‘Two ticks.’

    I made my way down the spiral staircase to the gents. I wasn’t really angry at Jacques. This terrible day was getting better by the minute. A tad squiffy, but I was back on a job and I had a solid lead. Things were falling into place. My dear Paris and her dark pleasures will have to wait. I washed my face clean in the sink – another excellent public toilet by the way – and bounded back up to Jacques, who was still at the table, settling up with the waiter.

    ‘Shall we?’ I asked, a spring in my step. I was excited about what surprise suit my friend had waiting for me back in his apartment. Something elegantly European perhaps? If you can’t go British, you can’t go wrong with a crisp Brioni or the clean lines of a Zegna.

    Jacques wearily rose and smiled one of his crooked smiled. I really am terribly fond of Jacques. So we were both quite upset when the front window exploded and three bullets screamed into his chest. 

    Read Chapter Four here

    [1] Been informed it’s actually Cary. Not his real name. Ridiculous name.

    [2] Summer of ’54. Trapped in Piedras Negras when hurricane Alice hit. Not much to do. Lost a game of poker. No fit state. Things got ugly. I still can’t go back to that end of the Rio Bravo. Shame.

  • 04 Feb

    Chapter Two

    The lavatory in the lobby of the Hotel de Louvre is magnificent. Just superb. One of my favourites. The flush mechanism is like on a plane. Strong, swift and discrete. An absolute joy to use. The room is not just clean, it’s also light, spacious and secure. It has a massive mirror. It also has a narrow awning window above the stall in the far left corner from the entrance that is all too easy to open from the outside.

    Naturally this was my way in. Jacques was right. They would almost certainly be waiting for me. Walking in through the lobby was out of the question. Checking in not an option. Even with a phony ID, they’ve probably paid off the receptionist. Last time I stayed here, it was some slimy little toad who mocked my wingtips. I got back at him though, but that’s another story.[1] Fortunately for me, I have spent so many nights in this particular establishment, I know every inch. Time wasn’t on my side and, as I said, I really needed the toilet, so it was perfect. Two birds. One stone.

    Take a tip from one who knows. The trick to sneaking into the basement toilet at the de Louvre is to duck down in the alley behind the building, find said window, then apply the right amount of pressure on the base of the wooden frame. The whole thing is rotten. Not enough to notice in passing, but if you have experience breaking into houses, you can spot the signs in the paint work. I pressed down at just the right spot, cracked the window, reached in, unlatched it from the outside and silently pulled open the awning. Easy. That’s the thing about these old buildings. They’re old. I probably should have checked to see if anyone was using the services upon my descent, but I was so pleased with my brilliant plan, I forgot to look down.

    As I lowered myself onto the man’s face, he was as surprised as me. More frightened than angry, but definitely upset. In situations like this, I am grateful to have inherited my grandmother’s cat-like reflexes. One swift kick and he was done. He slumped against the wall of the stall and slid down unconscious and half dressed onto the cold marble floor. I never kill unless I have to. Certainly not when I need the toilet.

    Moments later I was prepared for anything. Light, fresh, ready to go. I emerged from the stall and washed my hands in the sink, eyeing myself in the generous mirror. That’s when I saw the bathroom attendant. A slim man in his sixties. Elderly. Confused. Makes sense. He had seen one man go into a stall and a much more handsome man emerge. Probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to him in years. He’ll talk. Do I silence him too? Seems unsporting. Besides, I believe that if you throw enough money at a problem it usually goes away, so I heavily tipped the old gent with all I had left from the cabbie. Smart move.

    Gesturing to the toilet cubicle, I told him I wouldn’t go in there for a while if I were him. At least an hour, just to be on the safe side. It was more time than I needed, but it’s always best to be thorough. He looked horrified but he handed me a fresh towel nonetheless. I smiled. I never get tired of this sort of thing. I finished checking my reflection, readjusted my belt, smoothed down my hair, said ‘merci et au revoir’ to my new chum, felt in my hip pocket for my gun, then glided out of the room.

    The entrance to the ground floor bathroom at the de Louvre is right next to a service door which leads directly to a back stairwell. It’s never locked. Typical French. If you had the time and inclination, you could stroll into every apartment in Paris without breaking as much as a sweat. I knew the drill. My mission brief would be waiting for me in the Gaston Strompf Suite. To be specific, it would be secreted inside the pages of a Gideon Bible in the top drawer of the night stand on the let hand side of the sturdy king-size in the master bedroom. Standard. All I had to do was infiltrate, retrieve brief, exit, then meet with Jacques at the usual place at 2pm. I glanced at my watch. 12:34. Shouldn’t be too hard. Not for me.

    The suite was on the sixth floor. To this day I have no idea who Gaston Strompf was. Someone did tell me. A particularly waspish blonde I brought back here one New Year’s Eve. She was an expert in Parisian political history, a subject I was particularly interested in that night. I listened to her waffle on by the fire long enough for me to seal the deal, then was off at first light to silence an Amish forger with a weakness for Dutch Blitz.[2] But that’s another story. Anyway. I had break into the suite with the stealth of a cougar. Fortunately, I have the stealth of a fox, which is better.

    I ascended the stairwell and squeezed open the door onto sixth. Shabby corridor. Art deco. Authentic. Not to my tastes, but there you go. It was a short scamper past a handful of rooms on either side before the corridor turned sharply to the right. The suite was at the very end. Even before turning the corner, I could sense there was at least one hulking goon outside the door, sent to mean me harm. Fifteen years in this game, you can smell the creamy taste of danger a mile away and there were two full-fat scoops of the stuff outside my room. Two of them. One of me. Should be fun.

    For such a situation, they train you to divide and conquer. Isolate and exploit. Separate and eliminate. By any means necessary. Easier said than done. What was the alternative? I could just shoot them both in the head. Quick and certain. But it would be messy. Exploding brains often has a trajectory that’s hard to predict. Also, disposing of bodies is not as straightforward as you might think; there’s only so many corpses you can stuff into a laundry cupboard before it just gets daft. The last thing I wanted was to be rumbled by some innocent maid as I hauled a pair of freshly-offed goons across the carpet. You try dragging anyone over thick hotel shag. It’s hard work, dead or otherwise.

                I stood there momentarily pondering my next move, but the decision was made for me. The elevator pinged behind me. A waiter from the hotel restaurant emerged, pushing a trolley laden with food. He was roughly my height and build. Handy that. I approached the unfortunate stooge and casually punched him in the face. Catching him before he hit the deck, I dragged him into a nearby laundry cupboard, silently closing the door behind us.

    In the cramped dark I removed his apron and waiter’s jacket. I slipped off my Kilgour and made the swap. Turns out he wasn’t exactly my size – not quite as broad across the chest –  but it would do. When I silently cracked open the door, the shaft of light illuminated a pristine silver Zippo that had fallen out of the waiter’s pocket and onto the floor. I’ll be having that. Merci buckets!

    I crept back out into the corridor, hoping no one had removed the abandoned trolley. It was still there. I couldn’t resist. I lifted the silver cloche. Boeuf Bourguignon with potato gratin and buttery beans. There was also a freshly-opened bottle of something heavy and red. God, I was hungry.

    I took one potato and washed it down with a generous swig of wine. Well. You would, wouldn’t you? As I wiped my mouth a panicked thought occurred. I still had my face. The face they would be looking for. I had to do something. After all, this face is hard to forget. I noticed the cork of the open red lying on the trolley next to the bottle. Perfect. I dug out the Zippo and charred one end of the cork. I then smeared the blackened end several times across my top lip to fashion a superb makeshift French moustache. Did I tell you I’m a master of disguise? Well I am.

    With boosted confidence, I re-pocketed the Zippo, rolled the trolley round the corner and towards the door to my suite. Towards the two armed men. Who wanted me dead. Here I was, hiding in plain site, dressed as a proper Frenchman. This was finally getting exciting.

                Now, my French isn’t what it was. It had proved useful in Normandy, but mainly for persuading farmers’ wives to part with much-needed provisions. Or their bloomers. I was young then. Not as classy as I am now, but you’ve got to remember, it was a different time. We made the best of a really bad business. Twenty years on and it all seems a bit silly now. Back then, some things were easier. There were clear lines. We were the goodies, Hitler’s yobs the baddies. These days I’ll be damned if I could tell you who’s on whose side.

    Six months ago I had to work with a Japanese chap in Shanghai.[3] Can you imagine? Dreadful. After that, I informed Top Floor that if I was going to be saddled with a partner, he had to be over a certain height. I never heard back, but I’m pretty sure they took my point. Anyway. My lingua franca was more likely to blow my cover than reinforce it. I can understand fine, but speaking it is another matter. As I approached the pair of heavies at the door, I decided not to attempt the native tongue. Instead I chose to speak English but in my best French accent. Fool proof. Ingenious. It was the last thing anyone would expect. Despite my pounding headache, I was clearly still firing on all cylinders.

    ‘Bonjour, gents!’

    So far so good. The thug on the left spoke first.

    ‘Qu’est-ce que vous faites? Personne ne commandé nourriture ici!’[4]

    ‘I believe ze gent oo iz stayin’ ‘ere’ pheuned ahead for rheum servize.’

    The thug on the right piped up.

    ‘Qu’est-ce que sur votre lèvre supérieure?’

                Damn. Somehow my cover had been blown. Time to move. With my left hand I grabbed the cloche and smashed the edge in Left Thug’s throat. He reeled back and to the side, choking for breath. Flummoxed, Right Thug fumbled for his gun but I was already two steps ahead. Kicking back the trolley behind us, I snatched the tray with my right hand and hurled steaming beef dinner right into his eyes. Blinded by piping hot jus, Right Thug dropped his weapon and fell back towards the door to the suite.

    Harnessing his momentum, I took a step forward and barged my shoulder into his nose. Hard. Blood went everywhere, his head crashed against the door, both broke open and the fiend was down. Not quite out, but the blow bought me enough time. Meanwhile, Left Thug had regained his breath and was coming for me, hard and heavy. I wheeled round, regained my balance, shifted my weight, then landed a hard left jab to Left Thug’s temple and wound up a whirlwind haymaker with my right. Sloppy finish I know, but I made it count. His body hit the trolley then the carpet, he was out for the count.

    I could hear Right Thug groaning from the floor in the room. I turned and entered, silencing him with a swift kick to the side of the head. It was over in seconds. Hugo Dean: 2, Hired Thugs: 0. That’s the thing about me. Sometimes I just punch them in the face, sometimes I actually fight.

    The pair of fallen goons were little more than glorified doormen but from the look of them, they were used to a scrap. They would come round soon enough. I took another two glugs of wine from the trolley then raced through to the master bedroom, opened the drawer of the nightstand and, sure enough, the familiar sealed manila envelope was tucked inside the Bible. I grabbed the brief then made a swift exit via the supply cupboard to retrieve my Kilgour.

    I tore off the apron, now stained with sauce, oil and blood, and tossed it onto the still-unconscious waiter. I grabbed my jacket and made my way down the back stairs, discarding the waiter’s coat down the stairwell. I emerged onto the first floor, exhilarated by my recent fisticuff victory. Striding through the hotel lobby, I swirled my Kilgour back on over my shoulders without missing a step, strolled past reception and out into the city. Now I needed two things: get to Jacques and get a proper drink. And a croque monsieur. Three things.

    Read Chapter Three here

    [1] No need to go into it now, but let’s just say he won’t be putting his shoes on in a hurry for a long while. See also the concierge with the limp at the Grosvenor and the head chef at the Algonquin who burnt my Dover Sole.

    [2] A fast-paced card game that’s destroyed the faith of many a devout Christian. Similar to Nertz, only without the violence.

    [3] Special agent Haruki Koki of the Japanese Secret Service. Tiny. Looked like a child. A deadly child. Flew off the handle whenever I ruffled his hair. Perished in Kobe Marina. Only partially my fault.

    [4] At the time I only got the gist of what he said. This translation has been since checked and verified by Marie in Finance. God bless you. I owe you a long wet lunch.

  • 28 Jan

    Chapter One

    PARIS, 1965.

    It all went wrong when I met the Frenchman. His crumpled linen suit reeked of cheap. He stumbled forward to shake my hand with all the dignity of a drunken clown. As he lolloped towards me at the gate, I could make out ugly clumps of greasy hair sprouting from under his Panama, battered and perched atop a blotchy, puffy face. In his other hand he struggled with a bulging canvas bag. Something inside was alive. Alive and furious. This did not look like a change of clothes.

     ‘As you requested,’ he spluttered, a thick French accent cloying up his mouth. He smirked with too much confidence for my liking, then he offered me the livid sack.

    ‘What’s this supposed to be?’ I asked.
    ‘Why, Monsieur Dean. The monkey you asked for.’

    I told him I didn’t want a monkey. He shrugged in that nauseating way only the French can. He told me he had received specific instruction by telephone, only last night, to meet me at the airport and deliver a monkey. I replied that since I was the one who made the call, I would know if I’d asked for a monkey. Clown shrugged once more and tumbled closer, so I got a really good look at his face. Dark eyes melting down towards a fat, booze-ruined nose. His cheeks were the colour of a butcher’s apron. He reeked of stale Gauloises and burned coffee beans. I’m no doctor, but I could tell quite clearly that he was not a well man.

    ‘Monsieur,’ Clown continued, ‘I have not been completely honest with you.’
    ‘Oh?’ Here we go.
    ‘It is not a monkey. It is a lemur.’
    ‘A what?’
    ‘It is like a monkey.’
    ‘How so?’

    I clenched my fists.

    ‘It is small.’

    Now I took a step closer. I tried to ignore his foul breath stench, but it turned my stomach. This was neither the time nor place for a scene, but it was happening anyway. Time to be the Roast Beef.

    ‘Now you listen to me,’ I growled. ‘Yes, I asked the Department to send someone to meet me off the plane, but I specifically requested that person bring me a lightweight, single-breasted, double-vent tobacco canvas Crombie, two pairs of white cotton socks, two pairs of white silk Italian boxers, one powder blue shirt, another white, both Pierre Cardin, tan Grenson loafers…’

    I leaned in closer.

     ‘…shaving soap, razor, badger brush, deodorant, toothbrush, Eau Savage, comb, and tonic. Vitalis.’

    Grabbing him by the collar, I lowered my voice. ‘French passport, 1,000 Francs, cash, and a Beretta M1935. Not – and I cannot stress this enough – not. A fucking monkey.’

    Forgive the language. I was tired. It had been a long flight over. The twelve large bourbons had left their mark and I can never sleep seated.

    ‘But Monsieur Dean,’ mumbled Clown, ‘I have brought your Beretta!’
    ‘Where is it then?’

    Clown’s grubby eyes glistened.

    ‘He is pointing it at your chest.’

    As assassination attempts go, it was admirable. Deploying an animal is high risk but has many advantages, not least the element of surprise. This technique would floor a lesser man. Fortunately, I am trained in all forms of violence. I knew exactly what to do. I punched Clown in the face. He went down like a marionette. He dropped the bag, unleashing the creature, which, I was impressed to see, was indeed holding my gun. Snatching the weapon from its tiny claws, I punched it in the face as well. Just to be sure. I hurled the dazed goblin into a gaggle of fat Germans emerging from the gate behind me. Take a tip. If you’re going to punch anything in public, always cause a distraction. Without missing a beat, I pocketed the gun and marched towards the nearest taxi rank. Behind me I could still hear the shrill howls of my would-be assassin as it ran amok amongst Bavarian blubber. I smiled and kept on walking, out through the exit and into the bright morning sun.

    My smile soon faded. Despite the futile attempt on my life, Clown had called me by my actual name. They knew I was here. And I needed those effects. And a pack of Rothmans. I’d left Washington in such a rush, I had nothing except the shirt on my back. This was a last-minute assignment. They usually are. When the dispatch came, I had been lying low at the Shoreham after the whole Wadlow debacle[1] and I won’t lie, I was rather put out.

    I had planned an evening fishing in the Marquee Bar. I love the Marquee. Always plenty of delectable morsels in that tank. Shameless, opportunistic socialites circling dull but rich political bait. American women are so wonderfully direct, especially in political circles. They also love a well-tailored Englishman among all that Ivy League gabardine. If you know what to wear and how to wear it, you can reel in a stunner. I have a technique that never fails.

    I secure a table in the corner, near the piano, and sink a couple of large Glengoynes. It’s a good scotch. Real all-rounder. Gives you a solid base but it won’t rip your face off, so you don’t lose focus. From this vantage point, I acquire the target. I then send a waiter with a tall glass of milk. Ice cold but no ice. After a fashion, I saunter over and inform her that I am a very wealthy English dairy farmer, in town for a milk and butter convention. It’s outlandish, but it comes so much out of left field in such a proper setting, they never doubt it. I lean in close and tell her that I need her expert opinion on my latest batch. The quarry is so refreshed by being offered an alcohol-free beverage, and also so incredibly flattered to be asked her opinion on anything, she is putty in my hands.

    I don’t recommend this strategy to anyone. Takes planning. What if the venue doesn’t have milk? Bringing your own is a gamble, especially in the summer months. The merest whiff of fermenting dairy sends even the most seduced woman screaming for the exit, no matter how suave you are. And I am very suave indeed. Also, this approach never works on men. Learned that the hard way. I don’t normally misread the situation but that was about a ten and I had to make a swift entrance via the gents. I do a lot of coming and going via public convenience. Comes with the territory.

    Anyway. Earlier that night, I had taken the precaution of checking with Louis behind the bar that the Marquee had fresh milk in stock. He had informed me a school trip was expected that very afternoon and had made a bulk order. I was all set. Sadly, I never got the chance to execute my brilliant plan. The call from The Department came through when I was in my room. Just after I got out of the shower as it happens. I had to drop everything, head straight to Dulles and take the red-eye to Paris. I was then instructed to check in to the Gaston Strompf Suite at the Hotel de Louvre under the name Gerard Duchamp. There I would find a brief detailing a really important, highly-classified mission straight from Top Floor, then await further instruction. Exciting stuff, eh? Before taking a taxi to the airport, I had phoned The Department, requesting a fresh wardrobe and effects to be delivered by hand upon my arrival. Naturally, my measurements are on file, and I was assured that all would be ready and waiting. And yet here I was. Waiting and not at all ready.

    Here’s what I did have. Twenty-two American dollars in my wallet, a recently-acquired, fully-loaded but unproven Beretta, and Her Majesty’s passport in the name of Mr Hugo Dean. And that was it. I knew the man checking in to the Hotel de Louvre must be Monsieur Gerard Duchamp, otherwise this entire jig was up. This had been a bad start. If I didn’t get a move on, even the typically slow-witted French airport security would soon ask enough right questions to nail me before I’d even made it into a cab. Then it’s game over. Fortunately, the taxi rank was swift to move and within minutes I was in a car bound for Paris. I had no francs to pay, but as we raced north along the autoroute, I hatched a plan. I would fake a bilious attack, ask the driver to pull over, and then, when the driver inevitably came to my aid, I would punch him in the face. I knew it would work. It had just worked on the chap in the airport and he was French too.

    The plan worked. No surprise there. As we reached the city centre I began my performance. Truly Oscar-worthy. Fantastic. We pulled up on Rue d’Echelle, just round the corner from the hotel. As expected, the cabbie responded to my affectations of distress and, at the exact moment he opened my passenger door, a prize-winning left jab to the jaw sent him reeling into a lamp post. En garde, Monsieur! Ha! Did you like that? I come up with funny little things like that all the time. I’m also an excellent singer.

    After rinsing him for loose change, I buttoned my jacket, smoothed my hair across my brow – which had not even broken into a sweat by the way – then sauntered not to the hotel, but a few hundred yards in a northerly direction. I knew there was a payphone where Rue Saint-Anne meets Rue Villedo. Four years ago I had used it as a toilet after an aggressive duck dinner at Chez Pedro with Fidel the Hairy Dutchman. Pedro’s is a curious place. All poultry and game dishes are served in the traditional French style, with the feathers still on. Despite my rock-solid constitution, the tickling of plumage to my stomach lining provoked a hideous eruption in both directions. That night I resembled some sort of frightful human Catherine Wheel. As I made my way to revisit the scene of the crime, I wondered if any evidence still stained the pavement, a ghastly reminder of a terrible night.

    I arrived at the spot where I remembered the telephone kiosk to be, only to discover that it wasn’t. Odd. It had been replaced by a man walking a tortoise on a lead. Typical French. How long they had been there was anyone’s guess, but I was almost certain the telephone had been removed quite some time before. Damn. I briefly considered punching both of them in the face, but realised it would benefit no one and I couldn’t bring myself to strike a tortoise. I’m not a monster. Instead I altered my facial expression, conveying to anyone who might be watching that I had just remembered an urgent appointment on the other side of the street. I turned on my heels and crossed the road towards Rue Therese. It’s a tatty but charming little street lined with stalls selling overripe fruit, dowdy flowers and Algerian pottery. To my relief, I spied the missing telephone kiosk, which for some reason had been relocated to the end of this street. It was much cleaner than I remembered, and looked completely different, but I knew it was the same one. You don’t forget a night like that. Not with the Hairy Dutchman. Time to make the call.

    I couldn’t call The Department. An attempt had been made on my life by the very man sent to meet me. If indeed he had been sent to meet me. Whoever wanted me out of the picture had the means to intercept confidential calls made to and from the most secret organisation in England. All channels were compromised. Even worse, there was probably a mole in the Department. A devious, treacherous little mole with piggy eyes and fur. OK, maybe not fur, but then again, nothing surprises me these days, what with all that science flying around. Before this decade is out, they’ll be giving desk jobs to dogs and firing a chap to the moon, you mark my words. Anyway. I knew I couldn’t reach out to any of my fellow Employees. Suits me. I am the best there is. Why should I be compromised by bunglers, oafs and stooges? This was the real deal and I needed real help. Time to go dark. Time to go deep. Time to call Jacques.

    I knew Jacques wouldn’t let me down. We had been friends since his wife enjoyed us both back in ’56. That was a hell of a honeymoon. Hazy but fond memories of our time in Gstaad: me, Jacques, Mutti, a Jacuzzi and a case of Cristal I’d picked up in Reims. I lost touch with Mutti soon after, but Jackie and I remain close chums. We once made a vow that if either of us were in hot water, just like on that steamy night in Switzerland, we could rely on each other for anything and everything. I picked up the receiver, flicked through my mental Rolodex and retrieved his number. Let’s hope he still lived in the city. He moved back to Paris two years ago, I knew that much, but that’s a lifetime in our line of work. For all I knew, he could be in St. Tropez, face down on someone soft, or just as easily on a quest for gold in the Yukon. Fingers crossed he would answer the call. I was more than a little ripe and in desperate need of what I like to call ‘The Three S’s’: shower, shave and suit. A Kilgour is ideal for promenading through Capitol Hill, or even the Burlington Arcade, but it was far too thick for Paris in July.

    I dialled the number and waited. The tone trilled for an age before a voice picked up.


    ‘Jackie, you old swine!’ I cried. ‘Dean here. In a bit of a pickle, I’m afraid. Job’s taken a rum turn before kick off. Need to call in a favour. Pull a few strings and turn this around before tea. You with me?’ I always play up the Englishness to Jacques. He loves it.

    There was a long silence. Perhaps I had called the wrong number? Perhaps Jacques was dead? Perhaps I wasn’t even on the phone? I looked at the receiver. I definitely was.

    ‘Hugo. What do you need?’

    It was Jacques! Good old Jacques. Never one to mince words.

    ‘The usual. The Three S’s, froggy ID, cash, rounds…’

    I filled him in on the details, basically repeating the list I had reeled off to Clown at the airport. Jacques said that wouldn’t be a problem. Not for him. It never is.

    ‘Meet me at the usual place,’ he said. ‘Two hours.’

    ‘Two hours,’ I replied. Perfect. ‘Gives me plenty of time to get my brief from the hotel and meet you there.’
    ‘Hugo, are you mad? You cannot check in without ID.’
    ‘Who said anything about checking in?’
    ‘They will be waiting for you, mon ami.’
    ‘Then I’d better not let them down.’

    I hung up. I was terribly pleased with that last remark. Very clever. I checked my Rolex. Just gone noon. Before heading off towards the hotel, I glanced back at the pristine telephone kiosk one last time. I needed the toilet.

    Read Chapter Two Here

    [1]See previous mission: The Tall Man, also written by the author, with help by those who were actually there. Many thanks for your contribution. You will be paid when I get paid.

  • 17 Aug

    Hugo Dean and the Biscuit of Death

    In between my non-fiction writing, for a few years now I’ve been working on my first novel. A comedy spy adventure set in the early 1960s, we follow the drunken exploits of Hugo Dean, a secret agent for Her Majesty’s Government. Like James Bond, he enjoys the finer things in life. Unlike James Bond, Dean just can’t handle his booze and tends to find himself on the back foot, in hot water and in desperate need of the toilet.

    France 1964. After a potentially lethal monkey attack upon arrival in Paris, our eponymous hero finds himself in a mysterious and unnecessarily convoluted mission that takes him deep into the dark heart of Europe at the height of the Cold War – when all he really wants is a stiff drink and a sit down.

    It gets worse. A tragic assassination forces Dean to engage in a deadly confrontation with a mysterious assailant over the river Seine. After a small detour to Montmartre for answers, he flees through the Alps and across the border to Switzerland, in the company of the enigmatic Isabella Gadbois. By the waters of Lake Zug, he discovers the true nature of his mission, to win a brutal race and retrieve a mysterious artefact from Spanish military history that could dramatically change the course of the Cold War. From Switzerland, Dean and Gadbois take a night train south to Italy, with an on-board menu that includes unbridled passion, brutal violence and an incredibly well-stocked mini bar.

    Having reached Italian soil more or less unscathed, Dean and Gadbois get caught up in a climactic and explosive showdown between local militia and a secret terrorist organisation in a derelict fortress town high in the Tuscan hills. Who will win? Will anyone survive? Where IS the nearest toilet?

    I’m going to publish the first few chapters on here to give you a flavour of this wonderful piece of nonsense. It’s a thrill. It’s a romp. It’s a farce. Think classic James Bond meets Indiana Jones meets The Thin Man, all told through the eyes of a man who really shouldn’t be doing this for a living.

    Read Chapter One here

  • 10 Apr

    Things That Go Bump in the Night…

    Now my first book has been unleashed, I am starting work on my next. Hopefully this won’t turn out to be my ‘difficult second album’.

    Straight off, my second book is a very different beast.

    Death and the Victorians explores the extraordinary culture that emerged during the nineteenth century surrounding death. I’ll also be looking at how we owe most of our modern attitudes towards death to this period. From ghosts and the supernatural to true crime and serial killers – these are all obsessions born from the Victorian age.

    The Victorians are often characterised as being dour and overly serious when it comes to death, but little has been told about the extent they vibrantly celebrated and even fetishised the dead as a means to understand life. Until now. Their relentless pursuit of truth concerning what lies beyond the grave is matched only by the ingenuity, imagination and invention they deployed to find it.

    From the ghoulish London railway line built exclusively to shuttle corpses to their final resting place, to the grandiose Paris Morgue which received thousands of spectators every day, this book lifts the veil on how the Victorians truly regarded their dead.

    The Paris Morgue

    It examines how the rise of spiritualism brought the afterlife into the home, séances transforming death into family entertainment. It also explores how Victorian science and technology was applied to not only better preserve the memory of those passed on, but also to provide concrete proof in life after death.

    A Victorian Séance

    This book will also cover the Victorian relationship with death on the printed page. The period is now considered ‘the Golden Age of the Ghost Story’, from Charles Dickens’ iconic A Christmas Carol to both Henry and M.R. James’ chilling and genre-redefining cautionary tales.

    The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens

    Aside from supernatural fascination, the Victorian era also created both the tabloid press and stoked the fires of our obsession with violent murder and serial killers – the more gruesome the better.

    Nemesis of Neglect, Punch Magazine, 1888

    Through historical documents, new interviews with leading experts in Victorian culture and my own academic qualification (in 2014 I completed a postgraduate degree in Victorian Studies), my aim is to craft a compelling, surprising, amusing and entertaining work that taps into the evergreen popularity of Victorian history, the supernatural and true crime.

    By examining Victorian values, superstitions, rituals and practices surrounding death, this book will hopefully be a supremely enjoyable chronicle that exposes a unique time in history when everyone, it seems, was inventing new ways to build a bridge between this realm and the next.

    By admin Books
  • 10 Apr

    Stan Lee: Author’s Correction

    My first book, Stan Lee: How Marvel Changed the World, is finally out and I couldn’t be happier. Thanks to all of you who preordered, I hope your copy finds its way to you swiftly and safely.

    I should point out of a silly typo that has lead to a minor factual inaccuracy. It reads as if I am suggesting that Stan’s daughter J.C. wrote the ’80s erotic novel The Pleasure Palace. This is, of course not true. It was Stan’s wife Joan who wrote the novel. Doesn’t help that the two have the same name…

    Unfortunately this copy error was spotted after the first run had gone to print, but I shall ensure it is corrected for future editions.

    As you were.

    By admin Uncategorized
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