Monday, 27 May 2019

Here, a seed was sown, a spark was lit. These buttresses the oldest structure for miles around, though no one really cares – their value is function. Unlike the once vaunted seat of civic pride; blackened, abandoned, ashamed – it cannot even tell the truth about the hour, but for the middle of the day and night. Brown, glazed brick crenulations stand opposite the ghost of the castle, taken down stone by stone when family fought family. Useful building materials. We are makers not conservers.
Above, two men manhandle carpet roll ends from lorry to trolley. Below, where the heron often stalks statuesque, unnoticed, twin ducklings, caramel spots and vees on their chocolatey backs, nibble at some coins – three pennies and a five pence piece – dropped with forlorn wishes onto submerged plywood. The foam-flecked, beery current is too strong: one strays and is swept downstream, fighting its way back, dipping under till its feet hit shingle, carrying on like nothing happened, a protective wing briefly flashing iridescent blue. Will they ever know such carefree hours again?
Striking out from a tiny island, a scarlet-beaked moorhen pecks inquisitively at discarded chicken bones; then, hidden until now, black fluffy blobs, all allosaur arms and legs, make their move for the cover of native willow and forget-me-not, rubbing along with balsam and knotweed. Above, hard faced great granddaughters of buffer girls, with pushchairs; small boy with tight black curls, brown and blue ice-cream; Somali man, almost dancing as he crosses, purple velour tracksuit; green, gold and black bag on his back. A Chinese man runs, holding his daughter; then she is set free, pigtails bobbing, laughing, pink checked dress flashing.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

A Tale of Two Pigeons. Fitzalan Square. The Third Sunday of Advent. (A short story)

St Vinny's "loft"
(There's an audio version of this at: )

- Nah then, Darren, a’reight?
- Ey up! Is that Kev? Bloody hell, Kev. How’s it blowin’, lad?
- Sound mate, yeah.
- Not seen thi for yonks.
- I’ve been nowhere mate – just mi ol’ territory. Where’s tha been?
- Well, we ’ad to clear out of St. Vinny’s. Proper loft that were, but the upright pigs moved in and cleared us aht.
- Oh ar, I heard about that – didn’t they murder innocent eggs?
- Yeah, ’orrible it were. Smashed nests an’ everything. So me an’ t’ lads went up ’illsborough after Tramlines to clean up. It were a reight good scoff – should’ve been there, mate.
- All t’ decent lofts are disappearing, these days. What were it at St Vinny’s? Not more bloody student lofts were it?
-  Ar, reckon so.
-  Dun’t they build owt else? I were at Wharneliffe Works for a bit, then the upright pigs came and started blocking up the flights. Bastards!
- Ar... Bastards!
- I’ve gorra reight pad in the Old Town Hall nah.
- Nice. I might try gerrin’ in t’ Winter Gardens for the neet, me. Love it in theer. Burr it’s tricky gerrin’ in…. What tha had for thi tea?
- Good old Greggs’ pasty – only a tad squashed an’ all. Not bad pickings the neet. What about tha?
- Pizza vomit up West Street outside Nando’s. Allus decent pickings up theer this time of year.
- Ar. True enough.
- Ar....... Tha still seeing that Debs?
- Nah, mate. She copped it, poor lass.
- Oh, ar? Whar ’appened?
- We were having a scoff – load of noodles spilt on t’ floor outside Yep Yep Hotpot and this bloody falcon swoops dahn an’ nabs her an’ carries her off up t’ top o’ St George’s.
- Shame that.
- Ar. Tha don’t wanna go near theer – student leftovers or no. Still… plenty more pigeons in t’ sky, as my ol’ ma used to say. An’ I’ve still gorr’ it. I can still puff my chest out and strut my stuff. I might have a stumpy foot burr everythin’ else works; know what I mean?
- Here, does that old fella still tip aht a carrier bag o’ bread at t’ top of Angel Street?
- Ar, sometimes. Reight scoff that.
- Reight scoff! Bit like that up Hillsborough wi’ loads o’ duck bread… ’ere, I’m just goin’ up for a traditional festive crap on ol’ Eddie’s head. Tha coming?
- Don’t mind if I do. Honourin’ the old traditions and that pasty’s on its way through.
-  Take that, Ed.
- Haha. Season’s greetings, Eddie.
- ’ere…. I thought summat were missing. What happened to all t’ trees, Kev? It were a reight cosy loft of a summer’s night ’ere. Many’s a lass I’ve cooed to up in them branches.
- Bloody upright pigs weren’t it. Chopped ’em dahn – just to spite us I reckon – can’t be no other reason. Made a reight mess of it ’an’t they.
- What they gorr against trees?
- Buggered if I know. Bastards!
- Ar. Bastards..... Here, Kev – dahn theer! Them upright pigs are chuckin’ summat dahn.
-  Bloody hell, it’s mince pies – I’m on it. Landing gear engaged!
- Wait – I love a mince pie, me.
- I’ll be well set up for Chrimbo nah, Daz. I were going to go for a bit of a race round wi’ t’ gang over t’ Crown Court, burr I’m not sure I’ll be able to move after this lot.
-  Kev! It’s gone dark, Kev!
- I can’t move, Daz. I’m trapped!
- It’s not that Falcon is it?
- No it’s...
- K–

- Oh I say two nice fat ones. That’s Christmas dinner sorted, Nigel: pan-fried pigeon breasts served with a red wine jus, fondant potatoes, celeriac puree, asparagus foam and pea shoots!

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The plight of the novel in society when kids refuse to grow up

There is plenty of advice out there on how to get an agent, and much of it is similar. So, it must be right, yes?

Well, given that agents stand guard over the watchtower that protects the entrance to the fortress of publication, what they say goes. Without them you will not get a foot on the drawbridge; the portcullis will never be raised, no matter how much you shout at the thick stone walls. They all say they are on the lookout for new writers to excite them – to elevate some poor aspiring writer amongst the many on the outside all hoping to access the London literary citadel. And there are so many millions on the outside: too many people writing books, which quite frankly aren’t very good. It is therefore hard for even superb, new books to surface above the vast sea of mediocrity. The agent becomes a necessity.

But the focus of agents by necessity is on the inside of their castle – first and foremost they have to make money from their existing list of authors. That is how they pay their bills, buy their Prosecco. That means spending time and effort schmoozing with publishers and promoters to get those projects onto the mass market – selling tens of thousands on the shelves of Tesco and the newsagents at railway stations and airports.

They all claim to be in favour of diversity, but they cannot easily take a risk with something that is not like something else that has already sold well, or with a book by an unknown whose very name does not automatically generate interest in our celebrity-obsessed society. If you regularly appear on TV, your new children’s book / romance / kiss-and-tell is a shoo-in, whether it is any good or not. The book has to be a good bet to sell to the thirty-something, tube-riding, Pret A Manger-eating, aspirational female.

So, agents become the arbiters of taste. The advice that comes down from on high is advice – not on what makes for good literature – but what they might best be able to clinch a big deal on with publisher. Do they amount to the same thing? Sadly not.

An agent will spend a small proportion of their time looking at submissions. They will rarely read past the first page – if they even get as far as picking the manuscript up. They rarely waste their valuable time in correspondence, or the basic courtesy of a reply to an inquiry letter. So, what is the advice for that crucial first page? They all say they have to be grabbed immediately by what they read; they want to be in the story straight away. These are not people who are fond of a long slow chat-up or gentle foreplay. They want their pants down on page one. George Eliot would not get her novels looked at if she was around today. Adam Bede has one of the best introductions in English literature but it is long and slow and descriptive and you have been reading some time before anything much happens. It leads the reader gently by the hand rather than thrusting them rudely up against the wall.

An intelligent reader of these modern high-octane novels, soon tires of the formula, of immediate peril, of tension being cranked up, of being psychologically manipulated by an author who is writing to a recipe. Louise Doughty’s brilliant novel Stone Cradle is skilfully crafted, is languid. It is as near perfect as a novel can be. Yet it is the Alton Towers-ride, nauseating rush, of Apple Tree Yard that is popular and sold in large numbers.

What is going on? It is all symptomatic of an infantilization of society. Those who read Harry Potter, who proudly announce they favour YA fiction as a genre. Thinking is a trait to be discouraged – in fact, how often do you hear it proudly rejected – when you tell someone about a great book and they reply that they don’t read books but have seen the film because it requires nothing from them. It is mere passivity. Who but a crank would read Tolstoy these days? Anna Karenina is a terrible book by modern standards – badly plotted, dreadfully paced, parallel, largely unrelated stories (of Levin and Anna), far too wordy and full of description that does not serve the plot. And the title is just boring and says nothing about what the book is about.

As authors we are told we are competing not with other authors but with other forms of entertainment. What hope then for an author who wants to write intelligent adult fiction in a world where there are fewer and fewer grown-ups? Where people in their 20s, 30s or 40s go and watch Star Wars without even the excuse of taking their kids with them. Grown-ups who still drink fizzy pop, who prefer their coffee milky and caramelly, who dress like American teenagers, and who can’t be bothered to work out how to vote so trip out the mantra that “they are all the same.” That is of course the point. Large corporations want brand loyalty, they need you to be a slave to your smartphone, to upgrade it every year, and it suits governments who don’t want you to think for yourself – they want you to leave them to get on with it otherwise they might lose power and risk the overly large slice of the cake they and their friends enjoy.

If that has depressed you, take heart. Just as indie-music kicked down the doors of the stronghold of the likes of the EMI, RCA, Polydor and CBS in the late 70s, so there are more and more small and independent publishers out there who are not tied to huge print runs, who are fleet of foot, not tied to London, who run a tight budget and care more about great literature than shovelling stodge down the throats of the masses. The big publishers like to regard themselves as guarantors of quality, but as with music in the 1970s, they no longer have such a monopoly. The big publishers still have a stranglehold on the shelf space and tablespace in big bookshops, but readers are finding other ways to discover a more varied, richer reading diet.

Friday, 1 July 2016

A Mother's Love

A Mother’s Love

Joe stepped off the train and held the package close to his side. He adjusted his weight on his crutch and dropped his kit bag to the platform. It smelt like home – the grease and steam from the engine mixed with that distinct smell of man, beast and machine working flat out to produce shells and armour plate. And yet there was no joy in him.
    Mick’s mother lived in the notorious Crofts; he would take a cab from the front of the station: people moved aside, a look of horror mixed with pity in their eyes. Before he could attempt to rebuild his life he had to give her this – all that was left of Mick wrapped in, now smutted, brown paper – Christ! how was he going to explain to her. The Christmas table at Mick’s would have a very empty seat. Good ol’ Mick – what a bloody laugh they’d had last year – as he lost his last Christmas dinner over the side in the Bay of Biscay. Sailing to Egypt was just one big adventure then for boys who, until they’d enlisted, had never been further than Derby that happy September day in times of innocence when the United netted five.
The old horse strained to move the cab away – all the good ones had been blown to bits in France. Town looked just the same, and yet everything had changed. He fingered the string on the packet – Mick’s book – his Bible – his lucky charm – with a sniper’s bullet right through the middle of it. What sort of God was this? As he’d lain there next to Mick he felt warm liquid seeping over his own chest – he’d been hit too. Except, when he’d felt inside, it was just his pewter flask leaking whisky where it had been punctured by shrapnel. The bloody irony of that! The sweet boy who’d taken the pledge, shot dead through his holy book, and the sinner saved by his sin.
   Ten minutes before Zero on the first of July they’d left the trench, comrades side by side, as the mortars opened up a hurricane bombardment and a huge mine exploded to the south shattering the world and sending smoke and earth hundreds of feet into the sky, drowning out even the deafening noise of the bombardment. There they’d lain down in the middle of No Man’s Land as grenades and artillery flew over. Then it went quiet, momentarily – perhaps it wouldn’t happen after all? But Zero had arrived – the artillery started again and the whistles blew. They got to their feet – they had to walk with rifles raised, not run – and then all of hell descended. They were supposed to be going forward but didn’t: as the front line fell more targets took their place, bodies piled up and blood and humanity mixed with mud. Screams and moans and cries of “mother” from boys only just in breeches pierced through the din, the smoke, the blasts that shook and rent flesh. Him and Mick pushed on but the bloody wire was still there and they couldn’t cross the last few yards. Then Mick fell and he’d picked him up and dragged him towards a shell hole – then a grenade went off and he came round with Mick under him and a searing pain in his foot and across the side of his face. Mick was conscious; he tried to keep him talking but gradually he had faded in his arms. He kissed him, but he had never known just how much he meant to him. How could he ever?
   There were a few of the Pals in that shell hole. They’d had to fight like hell to defend that open grave until nightfall. Then he’d had to leave Mick – along with all the others they stepped over on their way back. All he could return of Mick was that precious Bible – the one with pressed poppies and wild flowers in.
   He had been amongst the one in three of the City Battalion that survived that day.
   He was shipped out to a first aid station and was spared those next three nightmare days clearing up the mess. He had tried to find out if Mick’s body had been retrieved and buried – he couldn’t bear to think of that beautiful boy – out there – being stripped by rats and maggots.
   The next day the post from home arrived and they were instructed to open it all – cigarettes, chocolates, socks, packed up with tender cards, letters of good wishes and prayers sent out to a God who just wasn’t there.
   No afterlife. Just this. One go at getting it right.
   No post arrived for Mick, for which he was grateful.

He tried to give the cabbie the one and six but he refused it – always that look in their eyes – he’d rather have their respect. He stood and looked round for the right courtyard. A child stood gawping at him.
‘Nah den kid, weer’s Mick Flannery’s ’ouse?’
The child, bare-footed and wearing clothes his own mother wouldn’t have considered fit for cleaning cloths, led him timidly into a soot-blackened courtyard. There was a stench of overflowing middens; some hens pecking near an open drain and the broken paving was coated in brown slime. He shuddered as his mind flashed back to July. His hand went up to the claret scar on his cheek. The boy indicated the house; Joe tossed him a ha’penny and approached the door. He took a deep breath and knocked. A girl pulled the door open, something in those blue eyes said she was Mick’s sister – how could he not know? – but Mick never spoke of his family.
‘Is Mrs Flannery in?’
‘Mother there’s a fella at t’ doo-er’
‘What’s ’e want?’ came a voice from inside.
‘I dunno.’
Joe waited. A dishevelled woman came out of the gloom. She was filthy; grey, matted hair, ancient-looking. Joe thought she had been drinking.
‘I’m looking for Mrs Flannery – Michael’s mother.’
‘Tha’s found ’er.’ Joe was shocked. This woman could surely never have given birth to someone so beautiful.
‘I’m a friend of Mick’s.’ He held out the package. ‘This was his Bible. I think he might have wanted you to have it.’
‘Tha can keep it. I’m not bothered.’
The door closed in his face. He didn’t move. She was supposed to invite him in, ask how Mick died, weep and wail.
How could a mother’s love be less than his own?

You can get the book that this story is taken from here
All author royalties go to War Child to help support children in conflict affected parts of the world.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Helen Hollick is a writer herself as well as the Historical Novel Society's Indie editor.

    It is confusing for readers faced with the plethora of indie-published novels to know whether any of them they are worth spending time and money on. At least a commercially published novel is a guarantee that it has passed some sort of quality threshold isn't it? (Not always. Many of them are plain rubbish or badly written). In my experience,  indie-novels can be superb - they may just have been over-looked or not sufficiently "like something else" that has sold well: how many times do you see books sold using things such as: "Will appeal to fans of..." (insert "Downton Abbey," "Ian Rankin," "Harry Potter," "Call the Midwife," "Kathy Lette," or just about anything popular). Do we always want to read the same old stuff? How many more books on the Tudors can we take? Indie-novels don't make it onto the shelves of  Tesco just because they are not like anything else, not written by authors with an already large fan-base, and not written by celebrities. They may still be very good in their niche, but not something that large publishers feel they can take a risk on because there is no guarantee of selling 10,000+ copies.
    So, how do readers find these gems amongst all the dross? (and let's face it there is a lot of dross). Large numbers of reviews on Amazon may be one way, but what about novels that have not managed to reach readers in the first place, and can you always trust that reviews are not just posted by mates of the author?
    One way is to rely on other thresholds of quality, such as the HNS Indie Editor's picks.

This month Helen is doing a fantastic job showcasing some of these indie gems on her A to Z Challenge blog. Each day in a April a different book is featured using the fun idea of interviewing the books' lead characters. All of the books featured are, readers can be reassured, good reads, and the authors know their subjects and have the skills to entertain their readers.

Follow this link to Helen Hollick's blog, bringing my character Rab Howell back to life (copied below). There you'll also find the link to the other 25 books all of which come with a guarantee of indie-quality:

Throughout April I have invited 26 authors who had been selected as Editor's Choice by the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews
 to help me out with the 2016 A-Z Blog Challenge...

Except to be a little different I interviewed 
their leading Character/s...

Today's Character is from :

HH : Hello! I believe you exist in Steven Kay’s  novel – The Evergreen in red and white. Would you like to introduce yourself – who you are, what you do etc?

Now just hold up. I don’t know how you’re doing this. I never went in for all that hokabens – y’know old Romany folk looking into the future – just a money making trick. I’ve been dead for nigh on eighty year, lass! But anyroad, I’ll try my best, like I allus do. They call us Rab – Rabbi Howell – them newspaper types they sometimes called us “the terrier” or “the evergreen.” I were one of the best half-backs in my day – some days the very best in England. Played right up to when that lundy sod from Burnley broke us leg – they heard the crack all round t’ ground.

HH : Where and when are you? Are you a real historical person or did your author create you?
Oh right, I see. I were real enough. I were born on a hill just outside Sheffield – a gypsy see. When were it? – I dunno – a fair while back – an’ I started playing for the United in 1890. Before that I were a hewer – down t’pit. Becoming a professional footballer were one of the best things that happened to us – that and meeting Ada. That were in 1897 – what a year that were, eh?
HH. In a few brief sentences: what is the novel you feature in about?
What I just said, lass – that year when I met Ada. It were a bit awkward – ’cause I were already married – an’ it were a bit of a scandal, an’ football clubs back then were right strict about stuff like that – run on strict Methodist lines – “nobody ever gets lost on a straight road” was the watchword. Well myroad weren’t that straight sometimes, shall we say. The United won the Championship that year – they wouldn’t have wi’out me – but carryin’ on got us the sack, an’ I were already a Liverpool player by t’ last day o’t’ season. Only time they’ve ever won it an’ all.

HH :  I ‘met’ my pirate, Jesamiah Acorne on a beach in Dorset, England – how did your author meet up with you?
He says he first read about us back in 1989 and spent the best part of 20 year – daft sod – wonderin’ if what were written about us were true – they said I were sacked for match fixing – I’d’ve swung for anyone who accused us of that: my only crime were to fall for Ada.
HH : Tell me about one or two of the other characters who feature with you - husband, wife, family? Who are some of the nice characters and who is the nastiest one?
Well there’s Ada of course – wi’ her beautiful blue eyes an’ red hair – Irish lass. Then Selina, the missus, and the kids: Lizzie, Little Selina, Little Rabbi and the baby. And the United team, and Victorian Sheffield – can that be called a character? Nastiest ones were the Philanthropist or the Tooth-yanker maybe – them what got us sacked.
HH : What is your favourite scene in the book?
Well I’ll let yer know summat for nowt – it’s mostly made up! That Kay fella – cheeky sod – reckons to know what I were up to, but, leastways, the football’s authentic – that game against Villa were a cracker. Me an’ Ada at the theatre – he makes us out as bein’ a right soppy sod – I never were really. Not me – not Rabbi Howell. Hard as nails me.
HH : What is your least favourite? Maybe a frightening or sad moment that your author wrote.
I didn’t like being reminded about that nightmare in Sunderland – where they said I scored two own goals – and them Sunderland fans! It were a tough year right enough. He might have made stuff up, but I reckon it were a half-decent stab at it. I don’t come out on it too bad do I? You can see fair enough why I had to leave my family?
HH : What are you most proud of about your author?
Proud? Nah – not proud on him. He does what he likes. Nowt to do wi’ me. But gi’ him his due – me and Ada were buried in an unmarked grave in Preston, an’ they’d even got Ada’s name wrong in’t book – had us buried with a stranger it sempt. Now I’ve got a right grand headstone – fit for an England International – that’s down to him an’ his book. So that’s not bad, eh?
HH : Has your author written other books about you? If not, about other characters? How do you feel about your author going off with someone else!
Aye. He says he’s on wi’ stuff. Full of daft ideas if you ask me. Summat about a copper – another story from back in my day, and another about a miner of all bloody things. Says he’s sending stuff to agents but not to get him started on that.
HH : As a character if you could travel to a time and place different to your own fictional setting  where and when would you go?
Tell you what, though, I wouldn’t mind playing football these days – most I earnt were four quid a week – more than a miner, granted – but only just. Imagine if I were playing for the United or Liverpool now, eh? And another thing: you know Liverpool an’ all their money – they contributed nowt to my headstone: not a brass farthing. Preston and Sheffield Untied were there, but bloody Liverpool – they insulted me, and my gypsy curse is on them!
Thank you that was really interesting!

Now where can readers of this A-Z Blog Challenge find out more about you and your author?

Links –

Friday, 1 April 2016

Joe Stepped off the Train (and other stories) is a new collection of short stories by debut and established authors, all with a war theme: how it affects people and changes lives. It started life as a short story conversation between myself and a colleague: following a short story competition at work for which we both chose the same starting line from the given list (The “Joe Stepped off the Train” of the title), and both coincidentally chose a war theme. We went on to write some more but it fizzled out at 8 stories.
    So, in the summer of 2015, I put out an appeal on social media and the blogosphere asking writers to contribute: the idea being that all royalties would be donated to War Child. The result has been a genuine collaborative effort: in compiling the collection I set out to not just accept or reject contributions. I have had my fill of that kind of  approach being taken with writers. Instead I chose to work with the writers to make them the best stories they could be.
    It has turned out to be, not a jumble of short stories, but a really coherent collection of stories that complement each other: tackling subjects like bereavement, love, hope, determination: feelings that war and conflict intensify. It is exciting to be able to contribute something to War Child – a great little charity which aims to provide sustainable support to the most marginalised and vulnerable children and young people in conflict-affected parts of the world — through work rooted in local communities:

Please take a peek at our video, (and please buy the book to support War Child):

My Radio Sheffield interview - 

This is the press release: