Saturday, 20 December 2014

Side by side - a short story. First published in "The Football Pink"

On April 24th 1915 Sheffield United beat Chelsea by three goals to nil in the FA Cup final at Old Trafford, the only Cup Final to be played in time of war. The Khaki Cup...

Joe stepped off the train. 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: the smell of home. He stopped and checked the pocket of his great coat: the programme was there, safe.
 ‘What’s up wi’ thi Joe?’
     ‘Nowt, I were just thinking about our Stan – seems funny ’im not bein’ ’ere. ’e never missed a match.’
 ‘I’m sure ’e’d rather be out with the BEF bashin’ the Hun.’
     ‘Come on you two – we’re gaggin’ – let’s go an’ celebrate – shall we get half way back first?’
 ‘Nah, let’s get one at the Queen’s Head, then come back and see the boys home eh? If we’re late we’ll sneak back through the hole.’

Joe sat with his pint, only half listening to his pals recounting the highlights of the game.
 ‘I don’t care what we paid for Utley – he were magnificent – a bloody rock at the heart of the team – him and Beau – if we could put up a battalion of men like them they’d have the Union Jack flying over Berlin by Easter. Two thousand pound! A bloody bargain!’
 He might not have his brother with him but he was in good company here: men he would be proud to stand side by side with. Harry, who grew up in the next street, who he played with on the Rec as a kid and who signed up with him at the Corn Exchange back in September. Big Bob, the teacher from Healey who, at five foot five, had had to gain another inch in height through pride and another two around the chest in order to pass the medical. Chalkie, the Town Hall clerk, and Walter, the professor, who was smarter than the rest of them put together but who was as coarse as a miner after a pint or two.
 They had been together for seven months now. That first day at the Drill Hall they were a shambles: a disparate bunch of individuals in an assortment of Norfolk Jackets, waistcoats, flat caps and Sunday best. They got their orders from the local papers, and it felt right that his first day’s drill – six hours in the sun – was on the pitch at Bramall Lane, overlooked by those building the new Shoreham Street Kop. They practiced rushing at Germans with brooms through the flower beds of Norfolk Park and they dug trenches on the lawns. There was a shortage of uniforms so their first ones, in bluey grey, made them look like convicts – or postmen. They moved from brooms to obsolete rifles. Now they were a proper disciplined unit, sat in proper khaki uniforms, and would soon be getting Lee Enfields – his brother could fire at least sixteen shots a minute with his.
They had headed up to the new barracks up on the moors at Redmires in December. Up there the new regimental Union Jack was torn to shreds by the weather within months, and they would wake up trapped in their huts by the drifting snow – it was then that Big Bob came into his own and was passed out through the window to get the door open.
 Those route marches across Stanage in full battle order didn’t half make men of them – if they didn’t get pneumonia. It had been the best time of his life: having such good comrades, getting up at midnight at New Year to sing Auld Lang Syne outside the huts, the concerts at the YMCA hut, sneaking off to the Three Merry Lads and back through the hole in the wall, and the crowning moment: beating the Sherwood Forresters six goals to nil on Thursday! The colonel was strict but fair, and let them take leave for important things: like cup games at Bramall Lane – and today.
 ‘What about Jimmy Simmons though? The way he crashed in Utley’s centre! I bet his uncle were a proud man today. God bless the big man.’
 ‘Aye, an’ did tha see ol’ Nudge there today an’ all – done up in his best suit? Best captain United’ll ever ’ave.’
 Chalkie raised his glass: ‘To Ernest ‘Nudger’ Needham and William ‘Fatty’ Foulke!’
 ‘First goal I ever saw was scored by Needham,’ Joe said. ‘Replay of the third round of the cup against Newcastle, the last time we won it. I were only six an’ me an’ our Stan got passed over people’s head right to the front.’
 Stan was probably asleep in his bunk somewhere now; God please let that be so; wondering what the score was – unless it got telegraphed to the front. He reached in his pocket and got out the things for sending to Stan – the Cup Final programme and a “Sports Special” Green ’Un, a bit stained from the pie he’d bought before the game. He regularly sent Stan match reports and cuttings from The Independent. Some snobs had wanted football cancelled at the outbreak of the war. But Stan said it gave them heart to read about their teams; and what else were those who were flogging their guts out all week to raise coal or cast steel supposed to do with their leisure time? The one small escape each week from all the worry. Those Oxford and Cambridge men just didn’t like people being paid to play sport – they didn’t get football, the working man’s game – didn’t understand the fight with “sorrow for the young man’s soul.” Those same chinless southerners didn’t bark on about the cancellation of horse racing. Or opera, or golf, or West End theatre! “Business as usual” was a one-sided mantra. No, it was the poor who had to go and fight or sweat in foundries and have no pleasure, never smile, never cheer, until the war was won.
 ‘Tha looks glum again Joe. I’ll get thi another.’
 ‘No, hadn’t we best go back over to the station? Don’t want to miss the boys’ return.’

No one seemed to know what time the train was due in, but a crowd was building at the station, those in khaki, like them, getting pats on the back. There had been a lot of men in khaki at Old Trafford that afternoon, perhaps half the crowd. Some like themselves still in training, some on leave, others with bandages or walking on crutches. How his chest had swelled when fifty thousand voices sang ‘God Save the King’ before the teams walked out. He imagined the Kaiser hearing those voices and quaking. The sky was khaki too, especially in the second half: it was during half-time that the fog fell, yellowish and thick, as the band played ‘Tipperary’ and the crowd sang along. The only way you could tell there were people on the other side of the ground was from matches being struck or the glow of cigarettes or pipes. The light improved a little towards the end – the United with their long passing and rapier-like thrusts pushed aside the Beanstalk Club and their delicate passing play: over-powered them – just what they would do to Kaiser Bill. At the third goal, over-excited kids burst onto the field wanting to shake Joe Kitchen’s hand.

Excitement started to build at Midland Station at around ten o’clock – the rumour was that the train was due in. They would miss the last tram up to Nether Green now, which meant an even longer walk up to Redmires – though a happy one. There must be over a thousand waiting. Then the train is heard pulling in and the cheering starts and chants of  “Hi, Hi for the rowdy dowdy boys.”
     He only saw the heads of some of the players through the crowd – there was to be no triumphalism, no parading of the cup, they were just bundled into taxis and away into the night.
     So that was it then. Another season over. No one believed that football could continue as normal through the next one. No Cup Final next year. Soon their battalion would be leaving the city to go and do their bit. Some had worried that all their training would be for nothing: that the Germans would cave in before last Christmas. No; maybe next – then he and Stan could stand side by side on the terraces once more.

 A version of this story will appear in a collection of Football short stories to be published in the New Year.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Interview with author Brian Sellars

Reviews of Brian's Billy perks novels at:

1)      How much research did you do for the Billy Perks books and how much is done from memory of your time in Sheffield?
Most of what I write springs from my own experience, but the facts must still be checked. I think it’s essential to research even into areas one feels familiar with. One reason for this is that, weirdly, it often seems that my characters are remembering things themselves, and I have to check them out. But it’s no chore. I feel researching is one of the perks of being a writer. I read books about the fifties and post war Britain. Maps, guides, old newspapers and Sheffield reference works are essential and of course Wikipedia., is truly brilliant.
2)      I went to The Rivelin Hotel to ask for a Campari and soda and to look at the Man’s Head Rock. Is it actually called that? You can’t really get to the big rock I presume it to be: it is too overgrown. Were you able to get closer back then?
Regrettably, Man’s Head Rock is now screened by trees. It used to be a striking sight, visible for miles. I think it’s a shame that the landowner has allowed it to become hidden, thereby depriving visitors to Rivelin of a truly dramatic view.  
3)      I couldn’t see any Tudor cottages near Orchard Road (the Star Woman’s cottage). Were they fictional or have they gone: it looks like there have been a lot of changes round there. has a photograph of the real Star Woman’s cottage. It is reference No: t02391 and is called “Old Cottage on Orchard Road”. The row of three cottages overlooked what was locally called the skittle yard. A block of maisonettes covers the site today.
4)      I guess living somewhere posh and sophisticated like Bath must have its plus points, but do you miss Sheffield? Do you still come back?
I miss Sheffield a great deal, and though I would love to move back there I doubt that family commitments will ever allow it. I make research trips and visit family and friends as often as possible.
5)      Does the distance from Sheffield have its have advantages when it comes to writing fiction? Giving you a different perspective?
Definitely it does. The Sheffield I write about is long gone. When I visit the city today I see much that I barely recognise. Perhaps being away from the Sheffield of today is actually essential for my kind of fiction, because what I see in my mind is the city as it was when I was twelve years old; a brave, struggling city, scarred by war and shortages, and untouched by redevelopment and civic improvement.
6)      Does living near Bath mean you are now a Rugby Union fan or do you still follow the trials of the Sheffield football clubs?
No it’s football for me, but there is a major downside to living away from one’s hometown, the severe dilution of parochialism. As a Walkley lad it used to be only the Owls I worried about. Now it’s the Blades too, as well as Hallam, the Tykes, the Millers, the Vikings, the Spireites, and several other clubs, though not Leeds of course. Fretting about all the northern clubs east of the Pennines is a major emotional burden. I combat this by strutting about wearing a bright red Sheffield FC shirt, hoping the locals will ask me about the world’s oldest football club so that I can brag about it. However, I’m beginning to notice this makes people run away.
7)      Pikelet or Bath bun?
Pikelet, of course. What’s to say?
8)      I love the characters, particularly Billy and the brilliant Yvonne. Do they draw on inspiration from anyone you know?
All my characters, even the ones in my 7th century historical fiction are to some extent based on real people. I don’t know any other way to do it. I don’t fear being found out, because I guess few of us would recognise ourselves anyway. In a few cases however, I wish those concerned would see themselves – Yvonne Sparkes for example. I loved her when I was a kiddywink. I often wonder if the real Yvonne has read my book and seen herself.
9)      Do you have a special place where you do your writing or can you write anywhere?
I write in my office. I’ve never felt posh enough to call it my study. I write almost every day and can work for hours on end, missing meals and breaks without a care. I love writing. It really is like time travel for me.

10)  I am excited to hear you have a new book (or is it an old book?) you are working on: Wolves of Woden. Can you tell us a bit about it?
When I learned that the place name Dore in Sheffield comes from door or gate, because of its strategic importance on the border between powerful Anglo Saxon kingdoms, I wanted to write about it. Sheffield doesn’t make much of that part of its history, even though it could be said that the very first king of all England was declared at Egberts Stone in Dore; not in Canterbury or Winchester or Westminster or York, but in Sheffield.  WOLVES OF WODEN will be a fictionalised account of events at Dore during the birth of Anglo Saxon England. It is a sort of prequel to The Whispering Bell.

11)  I likened Tuppenny Hat Detective to Emil and the Detectives. Is that something you read as a child?
No, I didn’t read as a child. I was a very slow reader. My mother struggled to teach me when I started to fall behind at school. I began writing my first book before I had read a book. It was called The Stone Circle, and was inspired by a spooky, solitary trip I made to The Nine Ladies stone circle on Stanton Moor near Matlock. I wrote about twenty pages, straight off, and loved doing it. I don’t remember what happened to them.

12) I find it hard to believe agents rejected Tuppenny Hat Detective. A lot of Amazon reviewers are clearly grateful you went ahead anyway. Is that one of the most satisfying things about writing for you: knowing you’ve cheered so many people up?
Nothing beats knowing that people are reading my stories. Tuppenny Hat Detective has been downloaded in its thousands, something I still can’t believe. I read every review it gets and answer every email I receive from readers. People are often so generous. It just blows me away.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Through rose-tinted spectacles?

I’ve been thinking a lot about football’s soul recently. It’s perhaps an age thing; add to that watching my son battling away in his first season in the junior league, an emotional response to the FA Chairman’s England Commission report, England’s predictable failure in Brazil, and the whole Ched Evans thing.

I sought a better word than ‘soul’ but couldn’t find one. I mean what really makes football important. It is not, as some see it, the winning of the next match that is the only thing that matters. If that was all it was, I’d probably look for something else to provide a buzz. What I mean are all those things that make football hard to live without, all the things that provoke an emotional response. Why when sat even in an empty Bramall Lane in the off-season do the hairs on my neck stand on end? Just looking at just under two acres of grass? Why do I hear faint echoes of crowd noise and thuds of tackles? Football has been played on this space for one hundred and fifty years; every one of those tackles, those goals, those cheers, those groans, those tears, has built what we have now. My granddad stood over there between the wars, he brought his son, his son brought me. I sat up there with my daughter, sit there with my son. This is my heritage.

Our great football clubs are our legacy to future generations, just as they were passed on to us. They are very precious. Life changes, football changes; but we ought to think about how change affects the ‘soul’ of our game, and fight change where it does not preserve what really matters. There are many examples of battles won. But also of battles lost. It is our game; it’s soul belongs to us, but we have let the management of our game fall into the hands of a self-obsessed Premier League, a spineless FA, a corrupt FIFA, and international capital whose sole interest is shareholder return. We need to reflect, not just on whether our team will win that next game at any cost, but, more importantly, what sort of football we will pass on to our children – for them to pass on to theirs. Without fans there is no game: that gives us tremendous power. We need to use it. Do we just want football to be a pre-packaged commodity: just a sub-set of the entertainment business sector? As the @savegrassroots tweet said: “Don’t let your kids grow up thinking football is a TV programme”

To lighten things a little, in my melancholic reflections I came up with a largely ridiculous list of ten things that have probably gone from the game forever; things that I miss, but which made football better than it is now. I have followed my team since the late sixties – perhaps anyone who started following the game in the post-Sky era will groan: not that old jumpers for goalposts, leather case-ball crap. But perhaps in thirty years time they will look back fondly at the use of i-Pads at football grounds.

In no particular order:

1)                  Singing at matches. But surely that still happens? A little, yes, but something has gone. It is less of a shared experience now. Fans have changed as communities collapsed and marketing men took over, and there is no longer a tradition of communal singing in church and school that used to translate to football grounds. It was no coincidence that many of the songs that were staples of the terraces derived from hymns: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, When the Saints, Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah, or songs based on things like Land of Hope and Glory. Similarly the loss of Top of the Pops and changes in the music industry mean that today’s popular songs are not quite so ubiquitous and rarely mutate into football songs. With one or two exceptions songs have become mindless chants.

2)                  Smoking. Granted, that’s an odd one for a lifetime non-smoker but there is something I miss about seeing smoke illuminated by floodlights rolling up from under the roofs of the terraces. I also miss the smell of cigars on Boxing Day as the dads lit up their Christmas presents. If I whiff cigar smoke now it still takes me back to Boxing Day matches in the seventies.

3)                  Terraces. I can’t not say something about terraces. Of course there were many bad things about standing, but why do some of us go on about it still? When you’re sat in a seat, you can only discuss the game with one or two people around you and if your season ticket puts you next to a ‘moaner’ you’re stuck with them like in a bad marriage. You can’t gently migrate to a more pleasant area. On terraces the banter was with twenty or thirty people. How best to describe it? It was like Twitter with just your team’s hashtag, no typing, no time delay and no stupid profile pics.

4)                  Floodlight towers. These were the beacons that marked out the ground – one in each corner. You could see them rising up above the terraced housing surrounding so many grounds, like lighthouses to guide you. Big, ugly – and climbable. Players running around with four shadows. But like most old football grounds they have gone: replaced by lights shining all around the plastic stadiums full of plastic seats, stadiums that change their name with every new sponsor (it only seems to be grumpy old gits who call them ‘grounds’ these days).

5)                  Bobble hats. Especially the ones knitted by aunts or grannies, hats with a big floppy pom-pom. Officially merchandised beany hats knitted on foreign looms are the best it gets. (And don’t get me started on flat caps and baseball caps.) Likewise scarves – the waving of scarves, the perfect accompaniment to communal singing. And where have all the rosettes gone?

6)                  Reserve team games played in the ground. For those of us too young or who couldn’t afford to follow our team away there was always the reserve match played at the ground on Saturday afternoon. You’d get the results of the first team announced and could watch a game. The ground was relatively quiet and you heard every call, every grunt, every thud of the ball. This constant use of the pitch was one cause of something else I miss:

7)                  Muddy pitches. Come February the pitch was, in some years, more mud than grass. It was rolled to flatten out the furrows. Then when it rained players slid about and got covered in it. Nothing like a well timed slide tackle in the mud. Fantastic! It was also a great leveller – I remember one of our sides seemed to thrive in the mud.

8)                  Idols. I feel sorry for kids these days. They have no idols like I did – no players who stuck around for  season after season: like Len Badger or Alan Woodward. Players who were loyal to the club and often grew up as fans themselves; flair players whose talent was natural and not learned or coached. Now a kid gets a favourite player’s name on their shirt and looks ridiculous six months later come the next transfer window. Or the officially merchandised calendar just mocks you when you get to October. The media, celebrity culture, and pampering of players so that they never become proper grown-ups, also means that idols are invariably revealed publicly as philanderers, cheats, thugs, or brats. Wasn’t it better when their private and football lives were separate?

9)                  Two points for a win. I thought the change to three points for a win was a bad idea when it was introduced in 1981, supposedly, to encourage attacking football: to reward goals. It was in some ways the start of the decline. It made winning all important – more important than the contest. Isn’t a well fought draw worth half a win? In some ways it provided a seed bed for unsustainable business models and wage inflation when television money flooded in. There is evidence that three points for a win decreases competitiveness, leading to the same old winners and losers which is bad for fans but is good for investors seeking security of investment. People only interested in a brand. (That is why they would also like an end to promotion and relegation.) Far from encouraging attacking football it has led to an increase in cynical football: making teams that go one goal up shut up shop and defend rather than risk exposure at the back by going forward. There is also evidence that it encourages cynical fouls. There is an excellent article on this by Nick Cholst on the CafĂ© Futbol blog at:

10)               Tackling as an art. There is every bit as much beauty in a good tackle as in a curling free kick. But it is an art form that is under threat. Under threat from cheating players who fall over at the least contact, from referees who award free kicks because someone falls over (especially if the player falling over is from a fashionable club) and from braying, partisan fans who don’t know, and aren’t interested in knowing, the rules. Of course we don’t want to see career threatening injuries or the old raking of studs down Achilles tendons to put down a marker, but do we really want to see football turning more and more into a non-contact sport?

(What have I missed?)

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Of Mice and Men: a suitable GCSE text?

Is Of Mice and Men really the best we can do as a text for our kids to study at GCSE? My daughter is currently being force fed Steinbeck in English Literature and how unappetising a diet it must be for a young reader. These are kids setting out, you would hope, on a lifetime of reading and we give them this to pick over – forwards, backwards, and inside out. If they are to be made to chew over something for months and months can we at least not give them something nourishing, something substantial and varied? Instead they get the literary equivalent of a packet of cream crackers,  almost guaranteed to kill off any joy of reading, excitement of discovery, or varied layers and depths of writing.
     I admit to being a bit provocative there, and I also risk putting myself in the same camp as Michael Gove (what a horrific thought) and ultra-orthodox Christians who want to ban kids from reading it because of profanities. My position, though, is that there is much better writing out there: writing with richness and depth which can be read and re-read and still you learn or discover something new. I also risk bringing down the wrath (grapes anyone?) of people who hold Steinbeck up as some sort of god. And how dare a nobody who has never studied literature academically criticize the literary genius of a Nobel laureate?
     The themes and story are undoubtedly good. The ‘playable novel’ idea is quite neat; though it is neither novel (only being novella length) nor play. It is very visual – clearly a work written in the cinema age – you can imagine the camera angles and lighting (or staging for a play). The dialogue is crisp like in a play or screenplay.
     However, at one point, at least, this ‘playable novel’ concept creates a problem for something written in novel form. A novel-reader is not like a play-goer: sat in a fixed position. A novel-reader moves with the characters, not just moving with them but even inhabiting their heads at times. When George and Lennie leave the bunk-house at the end of the second chapter/scene we go with them in our heads. But then, no – we are shoved back into the bunk-house to be made to watch the ancient dog walk in. It is odd – it doesn’t work.
     We are also deprived by this technique of any insight into the characters’ thoughts, motivations or emotions – one of the joys of the novel form. As a result Steinbeck is forced into rather wooden ‘telling’ (stage direction?), heavily using adverbs to make up for the lack of depth: “she said contemptuously,” “Curly repeated sullenly,” “Crooks interrupted brutally,” “rubbed his cheek angrily” etc. Any student of creative writing will have it beaten into them, perhaps obsessively, to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ – that is more satisfying for the reader to discover than to be told. The reader is left to have to try to work out what “smiling wryly” or “said wonderingly” really means.
     Some of the writing is just plain bad. What on earth does this mean:
“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.” I have read this and re-read it and it still remains as meaningless as Civil-Servant management-speak.
     Then right at the end Steinbeck forces something very odd on the reader. Lennie is alone and suddenly a voice comes out of his head, the voice of his aunt – and this voice in his head is somehow far more eloquent than Lennie? How does that work? Finally, to cap it all he starts talking to a ‘gigantic rabbit’  who pops out of his head – a rabbit that says: “You ain’t fit to lick the boots of no rabbit.” A gigantic rabbit with boots? What was Steinbeck on?
     Perhaps my biggest complaint, however, is the misogyny in Of Mice and Men. I know it is viewed from a 1930s male perspective, not a politically correct, modern one – but we are holding this up to our girls as being of great literary merit. Some people will say that the book challenges both sexism and racism. I don’t see it that way. The main female character is not even dignified by having a name. On this point she is on a level with the nameless dogs. She is just Curley’s wife, or worse than that a figure of contempt and hatred: “a tart,” “a bitch,” “a tramp,” a “that,” “jail bait.” Some will say that it is deliberate act on the part of the writer to expose these attitudes. But, contrast the way Curley’s wife is written compared to African American: Crooks. Crooks is painted sympathetically. He has a purpose in life, intelligence, and a certain level of skill. He is allowed by Steinbeck to voice the discrimination against him and stand up for himself. He does not come across as victim – he is simply discriminated against because of his colour. Curley’s wife on the other hand is vacuous, and dresses in a ridiculous way for life on a farm. She is made by the author to come across as she is described by his characters, and is mocked for her ridiculous notions of being in the movies. Steinbeck has portrayed her as ‘got it coming to her.’ Had Steinbeck wanted to highlight the social plight of women he would have painted her sympathetically. You can’t claim that he is simply showing how hard life was for women in that position. It is like those films featuring graphic rape that people (usually men) try to hold up as being anti-rape. It doesn’t wash. What Steinbeck’s attitude towards women was I don’t know, I haven’t studied it, but his character is entirely portrayed as an evil influence or at best self-obsessed and neglected. Not all novels need to be politically correct and there is nothing wrong with a novel told purely from a macho, male perspective – that is one aspect of life after all, and novels should reflect all aspects of life – but  to inflict this on our daughters?
     So why Of Mice and Men for GCSE? Why are we all supposed to be in awe of the ‘Great American novel?’ (Another heresy, whisper it quietly: The Great Gatsby is not that great.) Is it something to do with the self-deprecating attitude in the British psyche that we aren’t allowed to rate our own art? Is it for the same reason that we don’t hold Elgar, Parry, Vaughan Williams, Holst, or Stanford in the same esteem as continental European composers?

     What does anyone else reckon?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Interview with Lynne Whiteley: Author of A Pocket Full of Hope

Having read and reviewed A Pocket Full of Hope (see post on Sheffield novels) I asked the author Lynne Whiteley some questions. More information can be found at:

1) How much of the story is true, Lynne? You say in the epilogue that Owen and Beth were your parents, but what about the other characters?

Realistically I would say 85% poetic license taken with the minor additional roles

2) How much of the story was related to you by your mum and dad? 

Their early lives, they always danced including at Blackpool, the war years

3) Who are the people on the cover? 

The 2 main characters, Owen's grandmother, Elizabeth his sister, the death throes of HMS Majestic torpoeded off Gallipoli where Arthur was assumed 'Lost At Sea' and the story starts.

3) I was trying to work out the locations in the book, but not very successfully. I imagined they lived near Heeley seeing as how they went to Edmund road drill hall. Was it a conscious effort not to be too specific? 

No altho the areas are there the specific addresses are not. Owen was brought up by his grandmother on St Mary's Road  before having to move after her death to Hanover Lane (no longer there)  off Hanover Street.  Beth's early days were spent in Upperthorpe moving on to Park area later.

4) It's nice that you're donating from each book to the Royal British Legion. I've not read that on your website or anywhere: only that you've told me. How much do your margins let you donate from each book? 

Flat rate £1 per book via Publisher Tommies Guides - Military & Military Fiction 

5) A tremendous amount of work has gone into the book. How long has it taken you? 

4 years on and off

6) The historical detail struck me as convincing. How much research went into it before you put pen to paper?

Quite a bit regarding the search for Arthur which took my brother over 18 months, WWI and again for the actual timetables leading up to WWII

7) Have you got another novel in the pipeline?  

Various ideas milling around. Nothing definite yet - sequel? perhaps - we'll see.

8) Whereabouts will people find you at Kelham Island Christmas market? 

In the Made In Sheffield section - where else?

Friday, 14 November 2014

Book reviews of The Natural by Bernard Malamud and Shoeless Joe by W P Kinsella

First published in 1952, this is one of the books everyone points to as evidence that Americans can write great novels with sporting themes, and yet, by contrast, British/European writers cannot. You can see in The Natural some of the sources of inspiration for Shoeless Joe and Barry Hines’ The Blinder (see review at:
Like many good books, different people will read different things into it, but, for me, the underlying theme is that male obsessiveness that conflates success in sport with success and happiness in life. And it is particularly male. There is something very odd about sport – and male attitudes to it. Its importance for male mental health is a very interesting subject. Evolutionary biologists may well try to explain it has something to do with being a substitute for war. There is in top sportsmen, that almost self-destructive, single-mindedness to succeed that Steve Davies suggests is the reason there will never be a great female snooker player.
Early on, the main character Roy is talking to Harriet – he is not boasting as such – very earnestly he says:
I feel that I have got it in me – that I am due for something very big. I have to do it.”
Later she asks him:
“What will you hope to accomplish, Roy?”
He had already told her but after a minute remarked, “Sometimes when I walk down the street I bet people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game.
She gazed at him with touched and troubled eyes. “Is that all?”
He tried to penetrate her question. Twice he had answered it and still she was unsatisfied. He couldn’t be sure what she expected him to say. “Is that all?” He repeated. “What more is there?”
“Don’t you know?” she said kindly
He thinks she means money, but she asks: “Isn’t there something over and above earthly things – some more glorious meaning to one’s life and activities?”
He fails Harriet’s test, and she delivers a very harsh, surreal judgment on him.
It is a book heavy with metaphor and I don’t profess to fully understand them all. It is one of those books you probably need to read several times to understand fully (and I’d probably need to know more about baseball than representing my junior school at rounders taught me). However, I think the answer to the main question posed comes later on from Iris, who offers Roy a lifeline that he doesn’t take. She says: “I hate to see a hero fail. There are so few of them.” “Without heroes we’re all plain people and don’t know how far we can go.” “It’s their function to be the best and for the rest of us to understand what they represent and guide ourselves accordingly.”
Roy ultimately fails, and – with a clear reference to Joe Jackson and the famous, but apocryphal, “It ain’t true, is it, Joe?” – one of the last lines is delivered by a paper boy: “Say it ain’t true, Roy.” In a way it’s a shame this isn’t a more accessible book – that message remains so relevant today – there are still so few heroes. So many of the sports stars we look up to ultimately end up in our eyes as bloated, cheats, thugs, misogynists or addicts. The media plays a part in this of course – not just in reporting misdemeanours but in dragging people down – and that is also touched on in the book in the form of the odious Max Mercy, the newspaper reporter. As does dirty money, as represented by Judge Banner and Gus Sands.
I struggled with some of the surreal stuff. It would have been better left out in my opinion. The dreams I could cope with, but Roy’s conjuring performance and his German waiter act, were just ridiculous.
Some of the writing is very lyrical and beautifully done: “As dawn tilted in to night…” – short and simple, but what writer wouldn’t wish they’d thought of that? Or: “The forest stayed with them, climbing hills like an army, shooting down like waterfalls. As the train skirted close in, the trees levelled out and he could see within the woodland the only place he had been truly intimate with in his wanderings, a green world shot through with weird light and strange bird cries, muffled in silence that made the privacy so complete his inmost self had no shame of anything he thought there, and it eased the body-shaking beat of his ambitions.” Or: “Afterwards it was night, lit up by a full moon swimming in lemon juice, but at intervals eclipsed by rain clouds that gathered in dark blots and shuttered the yellow light off the fields and tree tops.”
I also think the scene with Iris at the beach to be one of the best examples of good writing about sex that I have read. It should be a lesson to all those who think graphic detail is somehow clever, or good for flogging books.
So is this evidence that only American novelists can write about sport? In my view, something else is going on. In the same way that the Wright brothers are uniquely celebrated as inventing flight, Americans celebrate and shout about their successes. (As if somehow the Wright brothers awoke one day and said “let’s invent the aeroplane.”  We ignore, or allow to be drowned out, the numerous, early pioneers of flight who contributed, including one John Stringfellow, from Sheffield (had to mention that) who designed the first powered aircraft in 1848.) (The size of the American market must also help in such things.) The Thistle and the Grail, written around the same time, is I believe every bit as good as The Natural and yet it remains largely unknown. I put this down to snobbery and elitism in British literature that would not even deem a novel about a working-class game like football worthy of consideration as ‘literature.’ In America attitudes are perhaps less class-based when it comes to sport. They are happy to celebrate their national pastime. Good on them for that.

Shoeless Joe is another book held up as an example of American writers’ ability to write about sport and capture the passion and the magic of the game. This ability is always contrasted with the failure of anyone to have produced a comparable novel of literary merit about association football/soccer. I had heard this repeated so often that I believed it myself and wrote an article reproduced on my website and blog as Football Fans Won’t Read Fiction. There is still some truth in that title – people say to me “I don’t read fiction, only autobiographies,” – as if it is somehow beneath them – too juvenile – stories are for kids. Which makes about as much sense as saying: “I don’t like paintings – has to be photographs or nothing for me.” However, I was very wrong to go along with the idea that somehow only American sports literature had anything to give.
      Shoeless Joe is not as great as many people claim: it is by far surpassed in literary merit by many association football novels. It perhaps captures the beauty of the sport of baseball to a degree: its romance and its tradition, and it is very evocative in parts – it creates some strong images in your head and the sense of place of the farm in Iowa is undeniable. However, it is also deeply flawed as a novel.
     The plotting is weak – for no apparent reason the main character goes off on several frolics without any back-story or motivation other than that he hears a voice – the first frolic is the building of a baseball park and it magically taking on the appearance of a full sized stadium complete with the ghostly players (but solid and substantial) and real hot dogs. You can just about to go along with this given a little suspension of disbelief. Then he goes off in search of J.D. Salinger – and it just seems to the reader like self-indulgence on the part of the author – it is not essential to the core plot and just introduces a strange character who adds little to the story. Then, by the time they go off in search of information on the most minor of players from the past, you just don’t care any more – the reader has no investment in this minor player and it just provides an over-long side plot that really gets you no further forward. When the main character returns to his Iowa farm you breathe a sigh of relief as you get back to the nearest thing to a plot, having endured a rather tedious road trip.
     The character Eddie Scissions is excellent (apart from his risible evangelical baseball speech: “Praise the name of the baseball. We must tell everyone we meet the true meaning of the word of baseball, and if we do, those we speak to will be changed by the power of that living word!” All that is missing are a few “hallelujahs” and “amens”). However, Scissons is introduced in a bizarre away: in a recollection as the lead character is driving. Rather than being intrigued by his relationship with Scissons you are annoyed at what seems like another diversion from the plot. And then later Scissons crops up in a dream recounted “as an exact videotape replay of a conversation we have had.” Like that always happens: remembering dreams verbatim. We just don’t care about Eddie Scissons at this stage. It is not until he comes to life – not until the reader actually meets him that we started to appreciate what a great character he is – if only we have been properly introduced to him earlier. It’s like at a party when someone drones on about so-and-so and how wonderful and interesting they are – they may well be but if we’ve never met them we are more likely to despise them through such overt praise. The novel would have been much improved if more time has been spent on the main character’s real relationships and how he came to be the special kind of person he is.
     Some of the writing is nice: as I said the sense of place etc. but some is truly awful. There are laughable things like: “a squat little man with terminal five o’clock shadow…” What is terminal five o’clock shadow? Five o’clock shadow that kills you? Or: “when the moonlight illuminates his face I can see that it is covered in question marks?” Presumably like something out of Doctor Who? (If you don’t know what I mean Google: Doctor Who, The Impossible Planet. )
     Kinsella relies over much on metaphors – I like a good metaphor in its place but we are bombarded with them, sometimes several to a page – the author just screaming: “look at me, aren’t I clever?” But some of them are just lame: “silver moustache that quivers like milk.” How does milk quiver? And why is that like a moustache that is not even white but silver? “It’s roof light glowing green as an electric lime.”  What is an electric lime exactly? “Leaves delicately veined as a baby’s hands” Babies hands look nothing like leaves – the veins on a baby’s hand are not something of note. Why? What is “a toothachy May evening?” Then in the ruined last line: “A moon bright as butter silvers the night.” I was okay with an image of a moon as bright as butter – one of those yellowy moons – but then he says it is silver? Butter isn’t silver! And that was my last thought as I finished the book!

Friday, 7 November 2014

Indie-publishing on a shoestring – how to get your book out there in paperback and e-book for just a few pounds: what they don’t want you to know

To indie-publish or not?

When I finally gave up sending The Evergreen in red and white to agents and publishers, and got sick of the lack of even the smallest courtesy of a reply, I was faced with a decision: do I bin several thousand hours of work or do I somehow go ahead anyway? Indie-publishing is growing, but it is still better in my opinion if you can get a publisher – it is not an easy option going it alone, especially if you are serious. The mainstream publishing industry still hold nearly all the cards when it comes to getting publicity and exposure. On your own you are left with a hard slog unless you get lucky.
     This is a tough decision for a writer – and at this stage you must recognise that you are probably suffering a combination of elation at ‘finishing’ your project, dejection that it hasn’t made the Booker shortlist by now, paranoia, resentment and confusion. In short you are in no position to make that decision. You should therefore rely on the smartest, most honest people you know and ask them to help. It is possible after all that what you have produced is a pile of shite and that the best thing all round for your sanity is to start again on another book, treating that as a rehearsal (plenty of writers do that) or just to accept that you write to give pleasure to yourself and/or those around you and leave it at that.
     You need to know if what you have written is worth anyone paying good money for. After all, there are so many books now being published: more in 2013 than in the years 1800 – 1950, apparently. Yours may have been rejected by the publishing industry but it still may be as good in its niche, if it has one, as mainstream published books. You need people to tell you what is wrong with your book – you don’t want friends to tell you it is marvellous. Ask them to be honest and to tell you how it can be improved. (You should already have done this before you sent it out to agents, but before you embark on indie-publishing you need that honesty.) Let’s be a bit brutal: as well as some corkers, there are some truly awful self-published books out there. Do you really want to add to that stinking pile?
     Right so you’ve decided there is some merit in publishing your work. First of all you need a budget. What is realistic for how many copies can you sell? If you are lucky a few hundred in the first year is possible. You may expect to make about £1.25 on an e-book or between £1.50 – £ 2.00 on a paperback depending on how you sell it: so don’t give up your day job. There are plenty of sharks out there who will be happy to help you, happy to charge you for proof-reading, typesetting, editing, setting the whole thing up on Kindle, designing a cover, advertising, tweeting on your behalf etc. etc. So you might just break even after about 6 years if you can maintain sales. (Of course you could just gamble that you are the next E L James, or you could spend £1000 on lottery tickets which might be a safer bet.)
     As well as some sharks there are also some indie-publishing heroes out there to help you avoid expensive mistakes: without them I couldn’t have hoped to get The Evergreen off the ground. I started from the point of view that I wanted to avoid the label of “vanity publishing.” That meant making, not throwing away, money – even if the target was no more than to at least break even, and then any ‘beer and skittles’ money generated on top of that was a bonus.

You can get a book into paperback and in e-book format for between £25-and 200 (or, if you are prepared to sacrifice something on royalties, for nothing). Here’s how:

Editing and proof-reading. 

This is something you should have done before you even sent it to agents, really. Once you’ve finished your draft, put it to one side and forget about it for as long as you can: at least 6 months I reckon. Then read it aloud to yourself: if you stumble over sentences they probably need a re-write. Get your smart, literate friends, or even better, friends of friends, to read it and tell you what is wrong with it. Then once you’ve edited it, read it again. Then read it again. And again, and again. I was still finding mistakes in The Evergreen after about 8 reads – and they are still there in the final thing – damn! One way to do it is to put it onto you Kindle (see below). (If you haven’t got a Kindle that is probably a necessary expenditure). However, early on, it is probably best printing off a copy and scribbling on it as you go.

Learn how to format an e-book. 

This sounds scary but here the first hero comes to your rescue: Guido Henkel: , Notepad ++ , and Calibre (These people are heroes, they make their stuff available for free. Once you start making money, perhaps consider putting some their way, or make a donation to them up front so that they can continue their work.) Some people use Amazon’s own Createspace software to upload  Word documents. Some people advise against this as the formatting on these can look poor. (However, some say that it works for them.) Perhaps it depends on how tight your use of Word is and whether you want anything fancy doing. Is the conversion software gettign better? Have a look at some e-books out there: you could look at The Evergreen:  : download the sample to your Kindle, or my book:  Compare those to something like (taking a book at random, that I know nothing about – it could be a great read for all I know):
     It is worth the effort to get it right: you may be taking a DIY approach but there is no reason you can’t do a better job than many of the lazily produced commercially published e-books (see my review of Ours Are the Streets for example at: )
    Have a look at Guido Henkel’s stuff and then have a play with your book on Notepad++ and Calibre. Follow Henkel’s instructions on cleaning up your formatting and transferring your text to the programme editor (I used Notepad ++ but there are others). Deal with your special characters as described (if you need a £ sign you need: £ by the way. ) Clean up your formatting on Word first using the find and replace facility, before pasting it into your editor. Find rogue spaces at the end of paragraphs for example with: find: press space bar then type ^p and replace with just ^p
     To then turn it into an HTML file you need to wrap the text with HTML headers etc. You can even make up your own <p> tags. Try cutting and pasting the following at the start of you Notepad++ document instead of what Henkel has:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "">
    <style type="text/css">
      html, body, div, h1, h2, h3, h4, h5, h6, ul, ol, dl, li, dt, dd, p, pre, table, th, td, tr { margin: 0; padding: 0em; }
  text-indent: 1.5em;
  margin-bottom: 0em;
  text-indent: 0em;
  margin-bottom: 0em;
  text-indent: 0em;
  margin-bottom: 1.2em;
  text-indent: 1.5em;
  margin-bottom: 10.2em;
  text-indent: 1.5em;
  font-weight: bold;
  font-size: 1.5em;
  page-break-before: always;
  text-indent: 1.5em;
  font-weight: bold;
  font-size: 1.5em;
  text-indent: 0em;
  font-weight: bold;
  font-size: 1.5em;
  page-break-before: always;
  text-indent: 0em;
  text-align: center;
  text-indent: 0em;
  text-align: center;
  text-indent: 0em;
  font-weight: bold;
  font-size: 3em;
  text-align: center;
  page-break-before: always;
  text-indent: 3.0em;
  margin-bottom: 0em;

I don't always use all the <p> tags in each of the books I've done, but I'll try and explain what I use them for. Some of these I made up and they seem to work (a proper programmer will probably have kittens though) :

<p class = “first”> removes the first line indent from the first paragraph after a heading or a * gap (like in a proper book).
<p class = “sub”> allows a subheading under a chapter number without showing up on the contents list
<p class="firstlone"> allows a paragraph on its own left-aligned, with a gap afterwards – so for a first left-aligned paragraph where you want a break in the story after that first para.
 <p class="centered"><span class="centered">*</span></p> This places an asterix in the middle of the page. It is best to follow that with left-aligned text for the first paragraph
<p class="titlepage"> creates a titlepage: the title on its own on a page.

The following example lets me end the page with "...fill me again" then start "Rab Howell...perhaps" on a new page half way down in italics:
<p class="extragap">On Good Friday 1898, Sheffield United beat Bolton 1-0. Sunderland lost to Bury by the same score and Sheffield United secured the English Championship for the only time in their history… so far. Come fill me again!</p>
<p class="newpage"></p>
<p><i>Rab Howell… perhaps ........................

This is the start of the book, following straight on after the HTML header above:

<p class="titlepage">The Evergreen in red and white</p>
<p class="newpage"></p>
<p class="first">First published in 2013 by 1889 books.</p>
<p class="first">Copyright © Steven R Kay 2013.</p>
<p class="first">The moral right of the author has been asserted.</p>
<p class="first">Cover: Greg Whitmore and Steven Kay.</p>
<p class="first">This e-book is licensed for your personal use only – it should not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you are reading this book and did not pay for it, please purchase your own copy – thanks for respecting the hard work and thousands of hours that the author put into researching and writing this. </p>
<p class="chapter">Author’s Note</p>
<p class="first">In 1894 Rabbi Howell became the first Romany to play football for England. I have never believed the accounts in the club’s history books of what happened in 1897-98: a pivotal season for him. My research led to what I believe to be as close to the truth as is possible. This is a fictional account based on what facts that can be gleaned.</p>
<p>The glossary contains Romany and dialect words, should the reader wish to know exact meanings.</p>
<p class="chapter"> </p>
<i>I don’t know exactly what Howell is made of, but he is an acrobat and I believe if he were standing on his head he would somehow get his kick in, and the ball would be picked up by one of his side.  – Free Critic, Athletic News, January 1898<p></i>
 <p class="chapter">CHAPTER ONE</p>
 <p class="firstlone">Saturday 17th April 1897</p>
 <p class="first"><strong><big><big>Rab</big></big></strong> took the little…

An extra gap can be added after a paragraph by adding </br>  at the end of a paragraph after the </p>.

Uploading an Epub file to Smashwords can be a little frustrating. The Notepad++ version of you book needs to be very clean before it will be accepted: it is worth doing this even if just uploading a MOBI file to KDP. Down the left hand side of your screen there are may be little minus signs. Look out for these and eliminate them: every line needs to open with <p> and end with a </p>. If you have blocks of italics running over more than one paragraph, each paragraph needs tagging. Eliminate empty lines and any lines which are just "<p></p>" - these may appear for some reason. Get rid of  lines with carriage spaces at the end: within Notepad++ you can search for {space}</p> and replace with just </p> (Word won't let you do this). Uploading to Smashwords will also not like filenames uploading with spaces between words in the file name: rename it just before uploading it. And you should follow their copyright page guide.

Once you have uploaded onto Calibre and created an e-book you can put it straight onto your Kindle to check it.

See post: for how to include pictures in your e-book.

I will also do another post on endnotes/footnotes.

3) Getting a paperback published.

By all means shop around to see what you can do on price. Fast Print Publishing: did my first edition of  The Evergreen. They are not rip-off merchants, and the book looked good. You pay for what you get – can’t complain about that. If you want add-ons from them, they sell each of those separately so you can make up your own package. Other so-called “self-publishing” companies don’t let you do the basics yourself and some take a cut of every sale on top. Fast-print don’t do that. For £150 I got The Evergreen set up as a Print on Demand book and £49 for them to keep it topped up on Amazon as “in stock.” I also bought 200 copies off them at a price that allowed me enough margin for retailer discount. (Retailers want at least 40%, so on a £7.99 paperback the retailer gets get £3.20 leaving your profit as the difference between printing costs and £4.79 – that makes it very tight to turn a profit, but you can perhaps squeeze about £1.80-2.00 per book). To do the £150 package you need to send them a typeset PDF of your book. Next step learn to typeset on your PC: don’t panic.
     Newer versions of Word can be used to convert to PDF, but you need to watch you don't lose formatting. I found out the hard way. You could of course pay for software such as InDesign or Adobe writer (but why would you unless you are a professional?). Alternatively Apache Open-Office: can be useful and exporting as a PDF seems to work well. Study paperback books you like and see how they are laid out. This is what you are aiming to replicate. Paste your document into Open Office docs and then start fiddling. I suggest you set it up with two pages per screen: recto and verso. The Evergreen is not my ideal layout: it is rather densely set out, the font is size 11, using Garamond, which is quite economical with space, and the margins are as squeezed as I could make them: but at about 105,000 words, and in order to keep costs down, I had no option: more pages more cost. I went for a standard page size of 197mm x 132mm. I set the Open Office page width at 12.70 and height at 19.80 – the closest I could get it. This when exported as PDF using Open Office’s facility came out as PDF that was 5.19 x 7.76 inches which was close enough. I set the inner margin at 1.40 and the outer at 1.20, top at: 1.30 and bottom at 1.93. The page layout is mirrored which gives you the recto and verso. Just fiddle on is my advice.

Amazon's Createspace platform is an alternative that I have used for print versions of Spirit of Old Essex and A Skipper's Wooing. It depends how many you think you can shift as to how the economics stack up. Createspace will give you about 17-18% on each sale. The advantage is that there is no up-front cost. You can also use their cover design templates: though they often don't look great unless you have some design experience to draw on yourself. It is certainly the easiest and safest option if you don't think you don't want to risk not being able to shift numbers in the hundreds.
Another Print on Demand publisher worth looking into is Lightning Source/Ingram Spark, who I used for Joe Stepped off the Train and my Evergreen second edition. (Update: since 2016 my go-to printer.) Do your sums and see what works best for you and the ways you can realistically distribute. For Lightning Source you have to provide your own ISBN numbers: this costs £149 for a bundle of 10 (or £75 for just one!) from Nielsen. How the economics work out depend on whether you propose to indie-publish more than once. Each publication costs £25 to set up, but if you order 50 copies that is refunded so it can work out reasonably. They seem to be very good at delivering books and it is set up on Amazon by them quite efficiently. 

4) You can’t judge a book by its cover

But everyone does. This might be the one area worth spending a bit of money on. I didn’t spend any on The Evergreen, however. I did the basic idea and then a friend with some slightly more sophisticated desktop publishing software helped me out and produced the JPEG for the cover. Fast Print have a guide as to how the cover should be laid out with bleeds round the edge etc. as do Lightning Source/Ingram. I also paid a few pounds for permission to use the font: from Galdino Otten ( ). Some fonts are free to use but you'll need to carefully check the licence. The cover of The Evergreen is not probably what a commercial publisher would have come up with, but it works, I think. Another possibility for doing something at low cost may be to get a design college student to help. It can also be effective just using simple desktop publishing: The Skipper’s Wooing, Spirit of Old Essex, Put Yourself in His Place and Joe Stepped off the Train were all done on Open Office Draw, for example. There also are cover design templates out there that you can use if you: see for example: 
     Another website worth looking at for all matters self-publishing is:

5) As you approach publication you need to start thinking about publicity, so that you can hit the ground running. This is hard work and not very satisfying. You have to tout yourself and your wares using whatever means possible: no one else will do it for you. There are no easy answers to how to do this. It is the Holy Grail for all indies. There are some ideas here:
    I suggest setting up a website (I used which is very easy to use for anyone with a bit of computer knowledge: it is very intuitive.) You should also consider spending a few pounds getting your own domain name: that way search engines are more likely to find you. Use Twitter, Facebook, other social media, and a blog. Look for any openings that make you book special: every book has its own audience and possible openings. Search around for people that will do reviews for free in your genre. You may have to budget for sending out some free copies. Learn how to do a professional looking press release. 
    Suss out your local media. Try and get local radio interviews if there is something newsworthy about your book: the launch, or a relevant anniversary or whatever. See also David Gaughran’s: Let Get Visible which has some useful ideas ( )
     Above all persist. You need to keep it up for long enough for word of mouth to start working for you – you need to keep chucking it in the air and you have to hope that if the book is strong enough it will eventually fly on its own (I’ll let you know if any of mine ever do!) Good luck with yours.