This month's Orphan Scrivener is being composed as snow falls thick and fast and weather forecasters are making noises about yet another nor’easter to follow in a day or two. Thus doubtless a number of subscribers will soon, if they haven't already, sympathise with the lot of the Pilgrim Fathers who, as U. S. Grant observed, came to a country sporting nine months of winter and cold weather the rest of the time.

That paragraph was copied verbatim from the December 2003 Orphan Scrivener, not just for the heck of it but because it describes the current situation as we begin to prepare this issue for transmission into the aether -- always providing the power stays on.

William Hamilton Gibson likened snowflakes to gems. We don't claim to be diamonds in the rough or consider Orphan Scrivener to be brimming over with golden prose or pearls of wisdom and since subscription is free it's not hawked about the marketplace at a price above Ruby's, that gin mill of legend, but in any event if you've reached this far you may as well keep reading....


Now that the holidays are here, I can't help but think about neckties. They are among the most traditional and thoughtless of Christmas gifts, a step up from socks perhaps.

Mary gave me a necktie one year. To be fair, it was not just any necktie. It was an English school tie, reminiscent of the school ties the Kinks are pictured wearing on their 1970's album "Schoolboys in Disgrace." It was, I believe, from a school in the area of northern England where Mary had grown up.

There was sentiment behind that particular necktie. It is probably the only tie (does anyone actually refer them as neckties?) for which I have ever had any use. In general, ties strike me as a waste. Why spend a lot on a tie? Who needs an expensive mustard catcher?

I don't wear ties these days. Whenever I wore one there was something unpleasant going on. They evoke memories of the boredom of suffering through interminable Sunday sermons, the horror of facing the unforgiving camera for school photographs, the misery of dragging myself to the office.

On a few occasions, while still in school, I varied my neckwear. I wore turtleneck shirts and a medallion on a chain. Ties weren't my thing but neither were medallions. Mine seemed to have been forged of iron. It was so heavy I walked hunched over. Bummer!

I tried a bow tie. The Kinks Ray Davies wears a bow tie on the cover of the "Everybody's In Showbiz" album. The bow tie didn't work for me. I was going for the rock star look but what I got was Orville Redenbacher.

Yes, about the only things I know about fashion was what I saw on old album covers. I've read that ties originated as a fashion statement. They were a mark of the leisure class, worn by upper crust folk who didn't have to worry that a useless bit of dangling cloth might get in the way of their work. To me, though, ties are an emblem of corporate servility. Every morning, getting ready for work, when I looped that cloth around my neck, I felt like I was putting on a noose.

Not long after I started the job I found a cardboard box full of ties at the thrift store. For $4. It might have been a random selection but I liked to think it was someone's lifetime collection. It was a veritable history of neckwear. There were ties wide as bibs and narrow as ribbons. Stripes, checks, stars, paisley.

I imagined the ties reflected not just changing fashions but the changing tastes of the owner. The loud ties of youth, the sober ones of middle age. Or perhaps it had been the other way around.

Those were all the ties I ever needed. For more than a decade, every morning I simply picked one of the ties from that box and headed to the office adequately uniformed. I wasn't particular. A tie is a tie is a tie. There was no rule against ties that were twenty years out of date or looked like the cat had thrown up on them. And considering how styles tend to go in cycles I must have been in style as often as I was behind, and on certain days I was probably a trend setter.

I'm not sure where those ties have got too. They might be in the attic. They would make a good nest for mice.

When I began to work at home I stopped putting on neckwear. I only wear a tie to funerals now. Other people's funerals. I will certainly not wear a tie to my own. Well, a school tie maybe.


It's traditional to tell ghost stories at Christmas, and although the ticker has been quiet since the last Orphan Scrivener rattled its bones around your inbox, there are still a couple of items to chill your blood.


Mary was asked to write one of the lead articles for the November-December 2007 issue of Cozy Times ( The article appears under the title “ authors of historical fiction avoid pitfalls.” Our novels aren't truly cozy, so you may find them and us in the website’s “not quite cozy” section. Many thanks to Diana Vickery, owner of the Cozy Library site and editor of Cozy Times, for the opportunity to pass along a few helpful (we hope!) thoughts.


Readers who subscribe to the custom mentioned above might like to consider perusing our growing list of links to classic and other tales of the supernatural Those who do could be excused for turning as pale as tusks of elephantine dentine, especially as we suggest the M. R. Jamesian links as an aperitif to a feast of eerie yarns featuring ancient family curses, weird noises in the long abandoned East Wing, and shadowy figures flitting about the village churchyard at all hours of the night for a start....


One childhood night truly dreadful weather blew in over Newcastle. Curtains of sleet lashed the city, rattling icy rain against windows and scratching impatient claws down steep slate roofs. It was teatime, and my younger sister and I were eating boiled eggs as we listened to the measured tones of the BBC radio announcer -- snug and safe in a London studio a couple of hundred miles south -- reading the nightly weather forecast for ships at sea.

"...Rockall, Irish Sea, Shannon, southeast backing northwest 4 or 5, occasionally 6...."

We grew up hearing these five minute forecasts every night when we turned on the wireless to listen to the six o'clock news. Thus whereas a recital of names and terms would be merely a list, to listeners such as us and countless others they mean much more than that. They are part of our personal history.

"...Gale warnings have been issued for Dover, Wight, and Portland...."

The nightly litany passed on to Fastnet, whose lighthouse was the last sight of old Ireland emigrants could look back to see before facing the Atlantic gales between them and their new lives, and Cromarty, bringing to mind Scottish witches who made a good living selling favourable winds to herring fishers and gullible sailors, not to mention Lundy, famous as a haven for pirates although only a scrap of an island off the Devonshire coast.

There was Trafalgar, site of Horatio Nelson's great victory against the combined might of the Spanish and French fleets, and Plymouth, where it's said Francis Drake insisted on finishing his game of bowls before going out to engage the Spanish Armada. Defeated, its remnants were to founder in terrible storms around our rocky coasts.

Next, the far northern Faeroes, famous for puffins, Fair Isle, called the peaceful island by Scandinavian mariners who put in to shelter there when the sea was running too high, and by way of contrast, Viking, calling to mind less friendly seafarers whose long-ago raids left linguistic traces in our local dialect and what has been claimed as the highest percentage of red hair in the nation.

Biscay is mentioned, far to the south although closer to us in time and one of many marine graveyards during World War II, when shipping forecasts were suspended and the international brotherhood of the sea fell apart for six years although the gales didn't stop raging. Closer to home, the familiar rivers Humber and Thames, who bear their sons and daughters away to their fates across the high seas as lightly as their names trip off the tongue.

All the names identifying particular patches of the sea were a familiar and a generally unremarked-upon part of our everyday routine. But sometimes the forecast became a matter of personal interest, as on this particular night.

It caught our attention towards the end of the announcements.

"Gale warnings for Forth, Tyne, Dogger ..."

We finished our boiled eggs hastily, thinking of the trawlers that put to sea from further down the Tyne. That river rolled by behind the Vickers-Armstrong factory at the bottom of our street, beyond where yellow haloed streetlights swayed sickeningly in the wind-whipped downpour scouring Scotswood Road. As we well knew, those scrubby little vessels carried local men, men who were broad and loud in their clunky boots and oversized knitted sweaters, and who when they went to work sailed away down the Tyne and out across the North Sea to the Dogger Bank's rich fishing grounds.

Given the grim forecast we'd just heard, it seemed very likely, to mangle Kipling, that the unfed sea would be calling that night. So as was our custom we turned our empty eggshells over and pierced their bases with the tips of our teaspoons. After all, didn't everyone know that witches sailed to sea in eggshell boats for the sole purpose of raising deadly storms? And on this terrible night of gales, surely fishermen and sailors and mariners of every nationality needed all the help they could get.


With the holiday season in full swing, let us not forget that in about a fortnight we'll all be standing at the gate, waiting for it to open the way into 2008. As the shadow moves over time's dial-plate, as John Greenleaf Whittier so well described the passage of the hours, many subscribers will be staying up late to welcome the new year or alternatively to make certain the old one has been seen off the premises. Either way, while we send hopes for good things for our subscribers in the coming twelvemonth, we also feel obliged to mention that at least one blot will darken their calendars, since the next edition of Orphan Scrivener will flap out on l5th February.

We'll see you then!

Mary R and Eric
who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line at There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, lists of author freebies and mystery-related newsletters, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver, and our growing pages of links to free etexts of classic and Golden Age mysteries as well as the supernatural tales mentioned above. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to Eric's blog at