Dark and stormy night

No, I’m not talking about last night and the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo, although I could easily be since things got quite lively about six o’clock this morning.

This is actually a theatrical ‘thing’ we went to on Saturday night at the Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness.  We’d seen it advertised a few weeks ago and thought it looked interesting, although thanks to a distinct lack of detail in the programme we weren’t sure what to expect.  All we knew was the title (A Dark and Stormy Night), the fact that it featured “sinister stories by eminent Victorians”, and that it would apparently involve “an experience for the eyes and ears”.

What we got, in its broadest possible terms, was two blokes reading out Victorian ghost stories to the accompaniment of appropriate lighting and sound effects.  That makes it sound very dull but it wasn’t at all.  For one thing, the stories speak for themselves.  Dickens’ ‘The Signalman’, H G Wells’ ‘The Inexperienced Ghost’, ‘The Ghost of the Blue Chamber’ by Jerome K Jerome, and M R James’ masterly ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ are all classics of their time.  Back in the day, before television and cinema inured us to the shocks of a good ghost story, they’d have been frightening indeed.  Even today, with the addition of those sound and light effects and some good acting, they raised the hairs on the back of your neck.  It was all very atmospheric and jolly good fun.

Our only criticism was that the effects weren’t, at times, effective enough.  There were opportunities to add other sounds or lights which were missed, and the mesh cage the stage was encased in suggested it should have had something (ghostly images, perhaps?) projected onto it.  At the same time, having the actors read from bundles of A4 printed pages rather got in the way of some of their actions.  We’ll probably never know, but we were left wondering whether some of the effects (including the actors’ prompts) had gone ‘paf’ on the night.  If so, they soldiered on wonderfully well and provided a good and very unusual night’s entertainment.

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Brief encounter with the past

On Saturday we had an invitation to attend the launch of historical novelist Deborah Swift’s latest book, written under her pen name of Davina Blake.  Called ‘Past Encounters’, it’s partly set during the filming of the famous film Brief Encounter at Carnforth Station.  So where better to hold the launch party than… the Carnforth Railway Heritage Centre, based at Carnforth Station!

Deborah has done simply heaps of research for the novel, not only about Brief Encounter and its making, but also about a little-known march across Europe by Allied prisoners of war towards the end of World War Two, which reminded me of the background to Noel Coward’s great book ‘A Town Like Alice’, only with men instead of women.  Deborah read from a scene where the hero struggles to march with a broken ankle, knowing that if he stops he’ll be killed, which was vivid and surprisingly harrowing.  If this is what the rest of the book is like then it’s quite a change from the action packed seventeenth century romps Deborah usually writes, but no less enjoyable for that.

The get-together was great fun, with two readings from the book by Deborah herself, a chance to wander round the Heritage Centre – and a free cream tea in the refurbished Refreshment Room afterwards.  An all-too-brief encounter, perhaps, but a very refreshing event.

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Birmingham library award

I see the new library in Birmingham was up for the prestigious Stirling Award, given out to the best new architect-designed building in the UK, this year.  Sadly for Brum, it didn’t win.  The formal accolade went to the rebuilt Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, in the face of strong opposition from buildings like The Shard in London.

Birmingham Library did come away with a consolation prize, though, since it won a BBC website vote on the most popular of the six Stirling contenders.

I still don’t really like the building – to me it looks like a pile of cardboard boxes loosely wrapped in concertina barbed wire – but deep down I’m happy for its success!

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Wheel Man taster

100Drag NoirTo whet your appetite, here’s a brief excerpt from my latest short story ‘Wheel Man’, which is due out in ‘Drag Noir’ from Fox Spirit at the end of the month.  Hope you like it!

Clear of the city streets, she buzzed the electric window down to feel the wind stirring her hair, and shifted to sixth gear. The last few dregs of the suburbs reeled past in a smear of street lights and rain; soon the bungalows would be replaced by hedges, fields and trees. She shouldn’t be this far out, of course. Fred’s place was back in the suburbs, tucked into a courtyard where hardly anyone went. This was a twenty mile detour; this was wasting fuel. But she could never resist the urge to put her foot down, to try the car for size. There wasn’t much point nicking cars if you didn’t get the chance to drive them for yourself.

And this one was a gem, if she did say so herself. Sleek, fast, built like a tank. The sort of car that young men dreamed of owning, and old men drove, too fast for their waning reflexes, once they’d made their pile.

Somewhere out beyond the airport she sighed, slowed down, and used a handy roundabout to turn for home. This was a good car, but there’d be others, better, more expensive, faster even than this. She’d hand this one over, get her cut, and do the whole thing again another night. At least Fred would like this one. He’d been weird about her cars lately, but one look at this and not even he could say no.


“What the fuck d’you mean, you can’t take it? It’s a great car.”

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The writing process

The other week I wrote a short story for a magazine.  The minute I finished it, instead of the usual happy haze of completing something new, I felt uneasy.  After a lot of pondering, I realised why I felt so uneasy: I hadn’t really explained the characters’ motivations enough.  What seemed obvious to me wouldn’t to the readers, and in a story about revenge, the reasons for that revenge weren’t clear.  All the readers would have seen was somebody dying, without enough explanation why.  Which in most circles of writing, goes down rather like a lead balloon, and understandably so.

After yet more pondering, I saw how I could make the whole thing work better.  Two days ago I sat down to re-write it, but with limited success.  I knew the direction I wanted to take it in, but the words just wouldn’t come.  Finally, yesterday, I got the inspiration I needed, started from scratch with a new title, at least one new character name, and a much better sense of direction, and managed to make it three or four hundred words longer while I was at it.

It’s still not perfect, and will need the usual tweaks, fiddling and fine-tuning before it’s ready to go out.  But I’m much happier with the overall result.  If anyone ever thought writing was easy, though, this is yet more proof that it’s harder than it looks!

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Defeated by the books

The Guardian has an amusing article today on so-called ‘unfinishable’ books, with one journalist giving the list of the top ten books he simply couldn’t get through.  It’s all a little tongue-in-cheek, but there are some interesting points in the piece, including the difference in levels of patience and determination with age.

In my own case I’ve lost patience as I get older.  In my teens and early twenties I would devour pretty much anything, no matter how banal, boring or badly written.  Nowadays, I probably have a tendency to give up too soon.  Not quite the minute the book becomes ‘hard’, as mentioned in the article, because in that case I’d deprive myself of some truly amazing writing purely on the basis that it stretched my mind.  Which I see as counter-productive, since I read to broaden my horizons, not narrow them.

One I did manage to read at the third time of asking was ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruis Zafon, and I’m very glad I persevered as it turned out to be well worth the effort.  However, there are many books that over the years have quite simply defeated me.  Too many to mention, sadly, but here’s three that sprang to mind, in no particular order:

1. ‘The Silmarillion’ by J R R Tolkien.  In spite of adoring both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I have never been able to wade through this vast tome of turgid wordiness.  It’s like trying to eat dried up porridge.  I’ve tried three times, and each time given up about a third of the way through.  Desperately disappointing, given how wonderful its predecessors are.

2.  ‘Possession’ by A S Byatt.  It’s won awards, it’s won accolades from the critics, but I found I couldn’t cope with the utterly wooden dialogue.  I gave up after an incredibly small number of pages, and have never been tempted to go back to it.  A shame, as part of me would love to know what all the fuss is about.

3.  ‘In the Place of Fallen Leaves’ by Tim Pears.  I suspect this one is the fault of over-ambitious marketers at Pears’ publishers since the jacket blurb bears no resemblance whatsoever to the contents of the book.  Read the blurb and you expect a lyrical, even mystical literary novel about a place where time stands still.  Read the book and you get a particularly dull memoir, supposedly from the point of view of a teenage girl, which goes nowhere and takes a very long time to get there.

I’ve only once thrown a book across the room in sheer frustrated rage (a third-rate historical romance set in a medieval monastery whose author had clearly done no research whatsoever, and where the Archangel Michael was used as a plot device to rescue the main characters from an impossible situation.  Yes.  Really.  It was that bad).  I couldn’t finish that one either, so I should really add it to the list, except that I’ve successfully blanked both the title and the author.

What about everyone else?  Are there books you’ve tried and tried again, but simply cannot finish?  Do write in – I’d love to know what they are!

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Shelfie of the Week #5

It’s that time of the week again… and it’s the turn of Scottish crime writer Bill Kirton, who says:

“Two offerings. First, some of my own books. I still get a childish kick out of seeing them on library shelves and on my own shelf. This selection shows some of my non-fiction – books aimed at helping students and undergrads to write their academic stuff – as well as my novels. Playscripts tend to be in dog-eared piles in a cupboard.


The second shot shows some of the books I’ve read over and over again. My PhD was on Victor Hugo and some of my favourite passages are in his works and those of other great 19th and 20th century French writers. Having to analyse them when I was an academic made me very aware of the complexity of the layers the greats manage to create in a single volume.”


You can find out more about Bill and his many excellent books at his website.  I can thoroughly recommend ‘The Sparrow Conundrum’ for a giggle.

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Free Drag Noir story

Heard about Drag Noir and wondering what all the fuss is about?  Then head over to the Fox Spirit website, where Fox author Graham Wynd (‘Extricate’, ‘Throw the Bones’) has donated a free story as an introduction to the anthology.  ‘Smallbany’ gives a great flavour of the collection and some of the character types you’re likely to meet, as a bumbling blagger caught in a trap finds a dinstinctly unusual way out.  The story features ‘salty language’ and ‘sexual shenanigans’, no less, and rather like a bonus album track released on YouTube, it’s a great way to whet your appetite for the main event.

Pop along to Fox Spirit to read ‘Smallbany’ here.

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Noircon 2014

It’s a shame this event (running from 29 October to 2 November) is all the way across the Atlantic in Philadelphia, because it looks amazing.

According to the schedule there’ll be interviews, talks with intriguing titles like “Three Minutes of Terror”, and readings.

For anyone who’s a little nearer the venue and would like to go along, registration is open right now – just follow the link on the main webpage.

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One month to go…

webDrag NoirIn fact, slightly less than a month now because ‘Drag Noir’, the anthology from Fox Spirit containing my short story ‘Wheel Man’, is set for release at the end of October.  I’m thoroughly excited, and even more happy to discover that my story is going to be the second one into the collection!

Thieving cars was the last great bastion of sexism in UK crime and there was no getting over that fact.  Sy’s henchmen had made it all too clear the last time they came round…

You can find more details, including a full contents list, over at the Fox Spirit website.  And don’t forget to start crossing off the days in your diary.

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Taking your money for a ride

I’ve heard of money flying out of the door, but this is incredible: the cctv footage of what happened when a gang of robbers targeted a cash machine at the University of East Anglia.  First they attached the machine to the rear end of a large 4×4 vehicle, then they drove away, yanking the whole thing out of the wall and tugging it behind until it smashed against a door and they could get at the money.  Reminiscent in some ways of the cans and bottles people tie to the happy couple’s car at a wedding, only a whole lot more violent.  As police said, it was a wonder nobody was badly hurt.

There’s a happier ending, though, because the police rammed the vehicle a short distance away and arrested the gang, who turned out to be wanted for a whole string of other robberies and burglaries.  The money was presumably recovered, so it didn’t actually fly very far…

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Anything for a laugh

I’d missed seeing the background to this, but apparently on Wednesday new European laws governing the art of parody come into effect.  This BBC article has a reasonably easy-to-understand summary for those of us who don’t have a clue what it’s all about.

Basically, it will make it easier for people to parody existing works (tv shows, films, presumably books) without being sued for breach of copyright.  The bottom line will no longer be whether the work in question is under copyright or not, but whether the parody is funny or not.

I can see arguments in court if the only person deciding on that is a judge who lacks a sense of humour – or one who has hysterics while everyone else can barely raise a smile.  The more immediate effect, though, is to make it easier for writers to parody something without being sued.  The downside to that is, of course, that it also smoothes the way for other people to parody our work – and there may not be a damn thing we can do about it.

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