Still Here

I’m still here. Fitzgerald's Very Thin Mints

I’m still working on the next Petticoat Katie novel, and I think I’m almost finished the first draft.

Unfortunately I have more goats than I can handle right now.

Not real goats, obviously.

Why the long gap between posts, when I’d hit such a good streak of posting every Wednesday?

Probably something to do with minor health issues, Extreme Gardening, and an overall lack of direction over where my writing goes from here.

I’m not about to run out of ideas – no sirree. But the Petticoat Katie series has another three novels waiting, there’s still life in Louis Beauregard yet, and I have at least two other sets of stories on my Explore Further kanban list.

Spoilt for choice.

There were books to be read, too. Stories from other people to be explored, and new art to discover. Friends to meet, focus to re-sharpen, batteries to recharge – a mini sabbatical, in effect.

And perhaps the chance to revisit the reasons why I write, especially on here, and to reduce the flow of unnecessary words that add little to the overall sum of human knowledge but still suck energy from the planet.

Nonetheless, I’m still here.

More later.

Published in: on August 19, 2015 at 9:42 pm  Comments (2)  
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Why Print Will Never Die

While I’ve embraced the technology to publish my own stories as ebooks, I’m still firmly in the dead-tree camp when it comes to reading. I’ve also published my own paperbacks through CreateSpace, a neat little library so far, and plan to publish more. I haven’t branched out into hardbacks – yet.

The subtle interplay of communion between writers and readers demands I do so, some time soon, because hardback books have an enduring appeal that honours the work within (and makes it easier to stack them around the home when you run out of bookshelves).

Take a look at this.

Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard

In itself, not an especially nice hardback (not any more). Cheap, in fact. And the story – Nada The Lily, by H Rider Haggard – not one of the classics.

I picked up this book from a second-hand sale at my local Red Cross hall almost thirty years ago. It’s a hundred years old.

The story’s even older.

But I can read the book as easily now as its first owner did back in 1914. It might still be readable a hundred years from now, if I look after the artefact that carries the story within.

Who was that first reader?

I’ll never know. The label on the inner flyleaf says:

R Harris & Son, Booksellers, Printers & Stationers, Northampton

Booksellers' label, R Harris & Son, Northampton

(click to visit the Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)

 

– but there’s no indication of the buyer: no bookplate, no inscription, nothing. The only hand-written mark inside the front cover is a pencilled price, which isn’t original – it’s £2, and the book itself says it’s part of Hodder & Stoughton’s Sevenpenny Library.

Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard, 1914 edition

Maybe the person who bought this book was a worker in one of the nation’s munitions factories. Maybe a scholar keen for a dose of exciting adventure between Latin and Scripture classes, or a soldier on his way to the Western Front hoping to snatch a quick read while he waited to go up the line to Ypres.

Whoever that first reader might have been, I can’t imagine the book stayed with them until I discovered it in the Red Cross hall in the mid-1980s. So where did this book lie between being printed and my finding it seventy years later in a second-hand sale?

Perhaps in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, or close by.

Someone – not me – spilled a cup of tea over the cover, and left it long enough to soak in and leave a stain on the pressed board.

The spine is faded to a much paler shade than the front and back covers, which says the novel was shelved for some time.

Is there part of previous owners in the pages of second-hand books? Even those which have been spared the casual underline, the scribbled notes in the margins, the corner of a page folded down?

Mostly forensics would pick up traces of me in this Nada The Lily, I’ve had the book so long. It’s travelled with me all over Scotland, to university in Birmingham and working life elsewhere in England.

Some of my books, like the copy of Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception/Heaven And Hell I bought in the same Red Cross hall, have tiny flakes of rolling tobacco in the crease. (The link is to the 1959 Penguin paperback, just like mine.)

Others, like the Marija Gimbutas I bought recently, arrived in the post with old bookmarks – a photograph of a train in India, and a sketch of a girl’s face.

Nada The Lily had a surprise for me too, when I opened the book to re-read it after a number of years.

Tucked near the end, the top folded down against the pages and hidden by the surrounding hardback cover, was a bookmark I’d used the last time I read the book.

Cadbury Schweppes visitor pass, 1990s

Yes, that’s a visitor’s pass from Cadbury Schweppes (as they were then), back in the mid-1990s. I worked there briefly in my first-ever corporate job, what would now be an unofficial internship, and 2015 Me has deduced that I was reading Nada The Lily in my lunchbreak.

So this book’s like an old friend, rediscovered.

Now I know that I can’t have bought it any later than 1994. I didn’t have access to the Red Cross hall any more, and I don’t know if they still held second-hand book sales. (When I think of all the amazing books I got from the Red Cross book sale, all cheap, I’m glad I was in that place and time.)

If I’d been able to download all those amazing books into an e-reader, would I feel the same way?

Galazi, King of the Grey People

No, I don’t think so.

Who amongst us had a Windows PC or a smartphone in 1994? The technology of Then would be obsolete Now.

Not so my hardback of Nada The Lily, still going strong like a frail old lady a hundred years on.

This is the lure of writing historical fiction: technology doesn’t change. Dave Wake pointed this out in a post on electric cars, and Charles Stross writes about the frustrations of writing near-future fiction when the pace of technological change is so flippin’ fast.

Books written with contemporary settings age so. Michael Scott Rohan’s fab Spiral trilogy, set partly in an international freight handling office in the late 1980s, has all the awful feel of that era laid down in black and white so evocatively I have to force myself to read through those sections so I can get to the parts with less tech (and more adventure).

The modern world changes; this Nada, still frozen in time, no less fixed than when I bought it some time before ’94. And the story inside?

Nada The Lily tells the story of the rise to power in southern Africa of the Zulu nation under Shaka kaSenzangakhona. (Much of Haggard’s tale is lurid and sensationalist and no doubt insulting to local sensibilities. The Victorians were big on their Noble Savages – including Scots, Welsh and Yorkshiremen – while ignoring the sufferings under Empire.)

The story is written as a memoir, in 1891, of events which are known to have taken place before 1828. Even back then the novel was historical fiction which avoided the snag of age-defining elements or real-time sociopolitical change.

(By the time of the events of my novel SHADOWBOX, set in 1832, Haggard’s story had already finished. And he was writing three years after the events in my novel THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN. Time travel, eh?)

H Rider Haggard falls into the same category as another of my favourite writers, Alexandre Dumas. Their stories have the same enduring appeal and have stood the test of time for over a hundred years. Characters who come alive in their circumstances, in vivid settings, facing choices many of us can’t imagine – and surviving to tell the tale.

Much like my copy of Nada The Lily survived in my travels to tell the tale, to me, of where I found it and where I last read it. If I’d opened up an electronic copy – even if I’d been able to read it in all its typeset beauty – would I have been able to learn as much from the file as I have from this hardback?

I doubt it. While ebooks might be here to stay (points over there) as long as the internet survives, print will never die.

Oh, and one more thing: the publisher. This hardback was published in 1914. The publisher was Hodder & Stoughton.

Hodder & Stoughton, MCMXIV

And they’re still very much in business.

Just A Bit Of Fun

Just for fun, I tried my name in the Time Lord Name Generator.

It told me:

Your Time Lord name is: The Intimidator

Back on Gallifrey, you led a dull and uninteresting life, working as an Archivist, First Class – but now, you travel Time and Space in search of adventure!

Your Type 86 TARDIS is currently stuck in disguise as a filing cabinet, and your latest travelling companion is a genetically enhanced, talking dog, on the run from the evil time-travelling scientist who created him.

Well that’s a relief.

Published in: on May 20, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Winter overlaps Spring

Go read the post “Little Deaths” by Terri Windling. It’s a voyage through the end of winter, drawn from two separate climates, dry desert and damp Devon.

Her themes include the death of the Sacred King, Le Roi Sacré, at the end of Winter – a theme strongly linked to the underlying mythos of my novels THE LAST RHINEMAIDEN and SHADOWBOX.

Skull small

Another snippet, this time a quote from Ellen Kushner referenced in the post:

“Does fantasy demand that you stay in your adolescence forever?”

Again, in The Last Rhinemaiden, the character of Louis Beauregard is at the end of his life, an elderly man, not frail but aware that his time must come. About as far from adolescence as any man can get.

His aim in the novel is to end in sacrifice, as he knows he must. But he’ll fight it all the way.

“I don’t want to die. But I have to be killed.”

There are young characters in each novel, but Louis is the one who fascinates me. I’m intrigued by his position, by what it would do to someone’s behaviour, his outlook, his friendships. There’s a space of almost sixty years between the novels and perhaps I’ve taken the wrong route between them both, writing the old man before I asked what would make him so.

Writing the end before the beginning; winter overlaps spring.

I found writing the character more fascinating as an old man than the young rascal he is in Shadowbox. (When I’ve finished writing the current series of Petticoat Katie novels, I can see me taking you on a mid-life crisis with no-longer-young Mr Beauregard, one step ahead of his fencing-master and his old Russian nemesis.)

And then who knows?

Another link, this last week, was Dean Wesley Smith on “My Best Work“:

“What happens if your most acclaimed book, the one history will remember you for, is going to be your sixty-third book written? And you only manage to write ten? Or thirty?”

So, to the work then, and let posterity be the judge. None of us will ever know – unlike Louis Beauregard – whether we’ll endure. We must simply travel through time, ever forward, through each little death of the seasons, towards the future.

Published in: on February 18, 2015 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Winter overlaps Spring  
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Narnia Underground

Just before Christmas, I found myself watching The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, on TV. Nice CGI, fiesty female leads, children doing grown-up things (instead of much of modern film showing grownups acting like children).

What struck me was the timeshift at the end: the four children, hotfoot from a major battle in Narnia, step through a magic portal back into wartime London.London Underground - To The Trains

The Underground, filled with ARPs and darkness, the children in school uniform carrying gas masks. The London of air raids and the Blitz, of missing parents or siblings fighting a war more real and more close than anything Narnia might hold. A city under siege, with no end in sight. More terrifying than an enchanted forest and an army of monsters.

This ending, with its abrupt slip from greenery and fantasy into a country at war, set me thinking.

My parents lived under German bombing raids.

My father’s house was flattened and his family had only the possessions they’d taken into the bomb shelter – the clothes on their backs, the change in their pockets, the baby in its pram and my father barely out of nappies. For a brief while my mother was an evacuee, and she remembered the bonfire at the end of the street on VE Day with an effigy of Hitler ablaze on top.

When I was born they brought me home to a bombed-out suburb. If I’d grown up there my playground would have been rubble and bomb craters and the clearances of condemned housing.

Instead, us kids played in fields and forests. But every time an aircraft flew overhead, we’d hide “from the Germans”, although the plane was more likely a charter heading for one of the Inner Hebrides. Along with cowboys & indians and the Famous Five, the family memories of bombing raids permeated our games.

I’m probably one of the last generations to remember this. My playmates were a few years older, with older siblings, who’d been children in the Sixties when the memory of wartime and rationing were still strong.

Och, even when I started primary school our textbooks were all tainted by the Second World War:

It’s more real to me than the wars fought since by Britain, except perhaps the Troubles, which were as much a part of my upbringing as the threat of imminent nuclear destruction during the Cold War.

What struck me about the Narnia film especially was how frightening it must have been for everyone, not just children, living under siege in wartime Britain. Blackouts darkened the streets, and those who carried lanterns hid their glow from open sight. The long dark nights of winter must have felt quite threatening.

My childhood games were safe – we knew the war was over. Even C S Lewis writing in 1950 knew how it all turned out.

There was a happy ending, for some.

But while the war went on, there was no certainty. Nobody knew how it would end, or when.

Instead the struggle continued – on all sides – and people bore up, or suffered, or caved in. But not to know that you were safe? Not to know that your home would still be there when you rose up out of the shelter in the morning, when the raids were over, the streets obliterated by the rubble of their own construction? To walk through darkened streets with only the lanterns of your fellow wanderers to light your way?

My childhood forty years ago was closer to the Second World War than that childhood is to today. In those forty years or so, the certainties which seemed so strong have been eroded, and continue to disappear, and strange new worlds have taken their place.

This electronic realm is almost close to Narnia – a step away from the real world, into the imagination, away from everyday troubles. We use this realm of the imagination to escape our cold realities. We tell stories to allow ourselves happy endings, even when there’s little hope in sight.

And we look for other lanterns in the darkness, to know we’re not alone.

Blackout Poster on the London Underground

Five more unusual films for Yuletide

Well, the festive season is upon us once more, and again the entertainment schedules seem to be packed full of violence and darkness.

I won’t be watching.

Last year I suggested five unusual films for Christmas, and this year I’m going to suggest another five unusual films for Yuletide. These might not have links to any of the festive events that occupy this time of year, but for me they provide an antidote to the mainstream.

1. The Colour Of Pomegranates*. Less a biography, more a montage of scenes portraying the life of the Armenian poet Sayat Nova, sumptuous and beautiful and glowing with faded Sixties glamour.Woman with chicken, from the film The Colour Of Pomegranates via parajanov.com One of my favourite scenes is the books of the monastery after a rainstorm being laid on the roof to dry out in the sun, their illustrated pages flapping in the breeze like prayer scarves. If you’re looking for a plot, you’ve missed the point.

2. Le Bossu. Nobody does swashbuckling like the French. Le Bossu has all the hallmarks of a Dumas story, yet was written by his contemporary, Paul Féval. The characters burst out of the screen: righteous heroes and tragic villains and evil henchmen, swordfights and acrobats and some of the most gorgeous cinematography you’ll find anywhere.

3. Mr Pye. A made-for-Channel 4 miniseries of Mervyn Peake’s other great work, Mr Pye features Derek Jacobi as a retired city banker on the tiny island of Sark, on a mission to spread good. Of course, nothing quite goes to plan…

4. Romantics Anonymous. Another French film, an exceedingly gentle romantic comedy. The hero owns a struggling chocolate factory. The heroine creates magnificent chocolates. Both are eccentrics with crippling social anxiety – just wait for the surprise ending. If you enjoyed Chocolat, or hated it, you might like this.

5. The Assassination Bureau, Ltd**. One of my all-time favourite films. Oliver Reed as Ivan Dragomiloff, the head of The Assassination Bureau, and Diana Rigg as the lady journalist who hires him to assassinate… himself. A classic late-Sixties Technicolour romp across Europe, stuffed with petticoats and airships and a cast you can play Spot-The-Star with.

The Assassination Bureau, Limited.

The Assassination Bureau, Limited (1968) featuring Diana Rigg & Oliver Reed. Clicking the image leads to the entire film on YouTube.


* Only when I looked up the link did I realise that another of my favourite quiet films, Shadows Of Forgotten Ancestors, is also a Parajanov classic. Pseuds Corner here I come.
** I have to confess, this was one of the inspirations for my Petticoat Katie series of novels, but I can’t compete with Jack London and Wolf Mankowitz… yet.

Love Letters To Libraries

Love Letters To Libraries is a week-long series for Scottish Book Week. The Guardian is hosting examples by well-known writers, including Alexander McCall Smith and A L Kennedy.

I like this idea. Here’s mine (sort of).


DEAR LIBRARY,

One of the first things every student does when they arrive at university is collect their library card. Unlike most of the others, however, I didn’t just pick up my card on the first day and head off to the Guild for a beer.

I wanted to see what was on the shelves.

I took the lift up to the floor with the archaeology books. I stared in amazement at the neat ranks of PhD theses in hardback bindings, rows upon rows of bound research papers, and past copies of magazines such as Current Archaeology, Antiquity, and the near-mythical journal of The Palynology Society.

It felt like I’d discovered Buried Treasure.

Not yet, I told myself. You have years to discover all this.

Instead, I made my way to the floor where they kept archive copies of British broadsheet newspapers, hunting for a specific item.

A small notice in the Times, November 1922.

The earliest reports of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb – a tiny paragraph of cool politeness and understatement.

Remember, at this point Howard Carter had been looking for sixteen years. Lord Carnarvon was on the point of giving up.

There was nothing to suggest that Tutankhamen was anything special, either.

In 1922, Tutankhamen was just an obscure name in the King Lists, a short reign sandwiched between the outrageous schism of Akhenaten‘s new religion and the dynasty which gave us the many pharaohs named Ramesses.

The reports from 1922 speak of promising signs that the tomb had not been disturbed. There were few hints of the treasure we know now.

I stood in the university library living the moment of Carter’s discovery, sand beneath my shoes and a hot desert sun in my eyes.

My thoughts?

“Oh, world, you do not know what’s about to hit you.”

I closed the newspaper and replaced its file back on the shelf. All those years I spent in the library, not once did I go back to re-live the thrill of that moment.

But whenever I think of my time in university, that enchanted hour alone amongst the archives stands out for me as clear as a candle thrust through a hole in a sealed tomb:

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly… For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and… unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”
Howard Carter, Tomb of Tutankhamen

University of Birmingham Library at redbrick.me

University of Birmingham Library. No, I don’t know who those people are either.


P.S. as an added bonus, have a look at Library Etiquette over on Redbrick.

Published in: on November 26, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on Love Letters To Libraries  
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Carving My Own Walnut Burr

A few years ago I read a newspaper interview with a shotgun manufacturer – high status, expensive, bespoke sporting guns – and their apprentices.

For the first year (at this particular manufacturer), the apprentice learns to carve the stock of a shotgun from a block of burr walnut.

Artisan work still exists in the 21st century.

High quality artisan work in the 21st century.

That’s all.

No metalwork, no ballistics, no mechanics.

Just carving a block of wood.

The point?

It weeds out those apprentices who just want to make guns. They leave.

The ones who stay are those who have the patience to spend years making a matched pair of bespoke sporting guns that sell for upwards of £50,000.

“A bespoke gun is unique in that it is fitted to the customer, like a tailor makes a suit to be fitted onto his client. A shotgun or sporting rifle made for a specific owner will be unique, have durability, and suit the individual need of the customer in terms of weight and feel. It is also a thing of beauty and elegance. The hand-made gun is a very personal thing and there will always be a demand for them.” – John Hogan (Sporting Gun)

“A bespoke gun is unique in that it is fitted to the customer, like a tailor makes a suit to be fitted onto his client. A shotgun or sporting rifle made for a specific owner will be unique, have durability, and suit the individual need of the customer in terms of weight and feel. It is also a thing of beauty and elegance. The hand-made gun is a very personal thing and there will always be a demand for them.”
Read more at http://www.sportinggun.co.uk/homefeature/542040/Are_provincial_gunmakers_a_dying_breed.html#G1hYo71K6A2J3mkY.99

The reason this comes to mind right now is partly due to the post over on Dean Wesley Smith’s site, “Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Indie Publishing: #2… Self Publishing is Easy” and partly from my ongoing thoughts about writing, self-publishing and endurance.

Many of the people I follow online have been in the writing business, and the publishing industry, much longer than I have. Envy of their position is not sensible. Some of those folk have been published writers since before I could write.

The most wonderful part of this, however, is that so many people are willing to share their experience and knowledge for free, on their blogs and websites, like having a master in that craft to teach those of us who are still at the early stages of our apprenticeship.

Lawrence Watt-Evans.

Terri Windling.

Jim Butcher.

I have a lot more burr walnut to carve.

2014: New Year Resolution Plea

Can I make a small plea for the New Year?

In amongst all the resolutions about keeping fit, going to the gym, eating healthily, stopping smoking, giving up drink and generally confusing the blazes out of yourself, I’d like you to consider one small extra thing which doesn’t involve giving something up:

LEARN SOMETHING NEW in 2014.

It might be the smatterings of a new language.

I have enough skill in Spanish to understand light-hearted blogs and glossy magazines, but not in great detail, and I can’t say more than “Hablo Ingles, lo siento, y muy poquito Espanyol” in real life. I can work on that, so the next time I go into an authentic tapas bar I understand the staff as well as the menu, and not because they speak excellent English.

Could be a new skill.

Knitting, for example. You might have got the world’s longest Dr Who scarf if, like me, you learned one basic knitting stitch and how to turn corners but never stuck with it until you got to the bit about finishing it off and removing the knitting needles. I’m unlikely to learn more knitting unless I’m stuck alone on a desert island with no clothes and then, who cares? I’d be building a raft, people, not knitting a flippin’ scarf.

Maybe a new sport or dance move?

I can do the basic pas-de-bas of Highland dancing but didn’t progress further than the chalk-mark of swords on the floor and holding my fingers aloft in the proper configuration. My fingers held aloft these days tend to be in a less contrite arrangement, especially when referring to dance. Yoga, zumba, pogo, on the other hand…?

Perhaps something useful, social, you may not need much, like basic First Aid.

I know how to… actually, I don’t. If you’re in need of help like the St John’s Ambulance give out, best go to them, not me. I’m good for ice on scalds (remember to drink the G&T first) and minor cuts requiring Elastoplast. Beyond that I have to reach for the experts. Probably best all round, really.

A new cuisine?

Discover Filipino vegan recipes, Brazilian cocktails, Bantu brownies, Indian desserts, Australian biscuits, Caribbean bread, Lancashire hotpot. Learn to cook pasta, from scratch, with your hands around an egg and a heap of flour on the kitchen table like my Italian landlady used to. Experiment with making tasty food at minimum cost, using recipes from AGirlCalledJack. Learn how to use your pressure cooker (at last).

Whatever you choose, please, consider learning something new in 2014.

Add to your skillset.

Make your place in the world a little more interesting, for you and for others. Keep learning alive. And see how it makes a difference in twelve months’ time.


P.S. You also get to say you tried it and it didn’t work, like me reading War & Peace. Got about 70 pages in, realised Tolstoy hated women and threw the book away. If I ever have the time to read something the length of War & Peace, or 2666, I’ll start on something enjoyable instead (like the entire works of China Mieville).

Published in: on January 1, 2014 at 1:30 am  Comments Off on 2014: New Year Resolution Plea  
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Five Unusual Films For Yuletide

Not that I’m from Shetland, you understand, but I like the festive greeting: God Jul.

And as a gift, how about five unusual film suggestions to overcome the normal festive fare?

1. Some Like It Hot. Starts off with Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis fleeing cold & snowy Chicago, ends with the pair fleeing warm and sunny Florida. Oh, and there’s Marilyn Monroe with a ukulele and a dozen blonde musicians partying on a sleeper train.

2. The Illusionist. Charming near-silent animation by Sylvain Chomet (of Belleville Rendezvous fame), based on a script by the incomparable Jacques Tati, what little dialogue is in French, shrugs and Scots Gaelic. Magical, gentle, and a little bit sad at the end.L'Illusioniste (2008) by Sylvain Chomet

3. Rare Exports. A bit scary this one but one of my favourites, and it’s best seen at Yuletide. Set in the cold frozen north amongst reindeer herders, featuring a child-snatching Saint Nick and a happy ending. Expect Scandinavian knitwear and Finnish dialogue (with subtitles).

4. Solaris. The original version from 1976, thank you. Not everyone has a happy Christmas every year, and this is one film that makes you think. It’s in Russian, too, so it makes you read the subtitles. A beautiful, haunting film, perfect for when you want to avoid the festive hubbub and switch off. Worth watching more than once, too.

5. The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. Another Billy Wilder film but one that’s often forgotten. Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson, the Loch Ness Monster and unspeakable crimes against the British Empire. Not very Christmassy, but ends in Scotland (that’ll be Hogmanay, then!) after another long sleeper train journey. Must be something in the air.

That’s all for 2013. I’ll be thinking of you as I am sat by the fire with a glass of noggin, toasting my feet and reading a good book.