Saucerful of Sky Arts

I’ve been posting on here, on and off, about the Saucerful of Secrets concert we were due to go to last year, which has been postponed at least twice thanks to Covid. Currently it’s scheduled for about April but unlikely to go ahead, and it may well be autumn or even next year before we finally get to see it.

However, as a small chink of light in the general gloom, we recently discovered that Sky Arts (newly available on Freeview here in the UK) showed an hour-and-a-half long concert by Nick Mason and his fellow musicians. The band now consists of Mason himself on drums, Gary Kemp (of Spandau Ballet) on guitar and lead (ish) vocals, and three other excellent musicians on guitar, bass and keyboard. And they’re good. Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not so surprisingly given the calibre of talent – but at times you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the original Pink Floyd line-up performing.

The material is mostly drawn from Floyd’s earlier albums (up to and including Wish You Were Here) with less emphasis on Dark Side of the Moon, The Wall, and The Division Bell. There’s clearly still plenty to choose from and the concert was an eclectic mix of really early Sid Barrett songs like Arnold Lane and See Emily Play, and more obviously “Floyd-like” tracks – Echoes, Heart of the Sun, Astronomy Domine to name but a few.

It’s great to see these tracks getting the airplay they deserve. As Mason himself said in a brief ‘intermission’ interview, too often Pink Floyd tributes stick to the same five albums and great though that is, it’s good to have some variety. We enjoyed every second, and are looking forward to the ‘real thing’ even more now that we know how professional it all is.

If you’re a fan of Floyd, or of prog rock in general, and can get Sky Arts on Catch-Up, then do look out for this programme, entitled Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. It’s well worth an hour and a half of any music fan’s time.

Gravy Train walking tour #2

And here’s the next in the series of walking (or cycling) tours taking in the locations I used in ‘Gravy Train’. This one is longer and you might well need to bike it rather than walking the whole thing, especially as you’d have to come back again!

Walk #2: Hockley to Edgbaston

Distance: approx 5 miles each way. I say approx because Google Maps had a major conniption when I tried to change the preferred route, which was for cars and didn’t take in half the places I needed it to. The wonders of technology…

Route:

1. Start at the Hockley flyover/Great Hampton Street. The area to the left as you walk towards the city centre is where I had in mind when I described Sandra and Mike’s public house, and there are examples of the type of pub (though nowhere near as rundown as theirs!) in the surrounding streets.

2. Continue along Livery Street, then turn right into Great Charles Street Queensway and follow this to Paradise Circus. This area is currently undergoing major roadworks to install a tram line and road and footpath closures seem to change on a daily basis, so find the approved route to take you across the island to Broad Street.

3. Once on Broad Street walk a short distance until you come to Gas Street, and turn left down here. There are some nice old buildings, now mostly cafes and bars, which back onto the canal basin. Find a cast-iron archway with a path that leads to the canalside towpath and have a good wander round. The area of the Gas Street Basin is fascinating and well worth exploring. I used the arch, the bridge and the towpath in the final showdown between crime boss Vernon Ball and Sandra’s “uncle” George, over the bag of money that Ball’s underling Lenny had stolen.

4. Retrace your steps to Broad Street and continue to Five Ways Island, a vast gyratory traffic system enclosing a green open space, with subways to various roads, offices and shopping centres. This island is central to the action in ‘Gravy Train’; it’s here that Sandra and Mike visit the betting shop to collect their winnings and get mugged by Lenny; and it’s on one of the roads leading to the island that Justine’s car breaks down and she nicks Lenny’s van to get herself home. Here’s a couple of pics of what might have been the betting shop, and the subway where Lenny froze his nuts off.

5. You can end your tour here, but if you’re feeling particularly energetic, take the subway up and onto Hagley Road and carry on walking for about a mile, until you come to the junction with Norfolk Road. There are a handful of clubs and casinos in this area which helped to inspire the Roller Club which Justine breaks into.

6. Retrace your steps, or catch one of the many buses that head along Hagley Road back into the city centre.

And that’s it. Once again I hope it gives you some new areas to discover and a bit of fun poking about. But again, don’t forget that Covid regulations mean we’re all expected to exercise within our local areas, so if you’re not already in Birmingham please don’t make a special trip yet.

And again, if you like the sound of the book then feel free to grab a copy here, and thank you!

The Makovesky elephant

It’s official! There really is a Makovesky elephant! Anyone who’s read my books knows I try to insert at least one elephant in each (several in ‘Raise the Blade’). And now it’s started following me about, and appearing at random where I least expect it. Apparently it’s standing on the banks of a lake, and you can see the reflection underneath its feet.

(Cough. For the practically-minded, this was actually a random water pattern on our garage door after rain. But I rather like the idea of a fictional, mystical elephant popping up every now and again…)

Gravy Train walking tour #1

Stuck in Birmingham during lockdown and sick of pounding the same old streets? Then why not try discovering some of the locations in my books? This is one of several walking (or cycling, for the longer ones) trails that I’ll hopefully be posting on here in the next week or two, with routes, distances, and interesting things to see along the way. I hope they help to inspire you.

To start off, a nice easy stroll centred on the suburb of Moseley. This forms one of the main locations of my dark crime caper ‘Gravy Train’ and the walk includes the settings for Fred’s courtyard workshop, Vernon Ball’s criminal HQ, and the bench where grass Todd meets his police contact Suzanne.

Walk #1: Moseley to Cannon Hill Park

Distance: approx 1.5 miles (and the same back!)

Route:

  1. Start in the centre of Moseley. If you’re not local and on foot, there’s parking in a small car park off the Alcester Road or in some of the surrounding streets plus a good bus service (no 50) which passes right through the ‘village’ centre. Head along Alcester Road as far as Woodbridge Road and turn down here. A short distance on the right is a gated archway leading to a courtyard of apartments. There was a dairy operating out of the courtyard at one time and it’s one of the models I based Fred’s car mechanics business on.

2. Retrace your steps, cross over Alcester Road and head down Chantry Road (opposite Woodbridge Road). This is a fascinating street full of large, late Victorian houses, many of them uniquely decorative and some so vast they have their own coach-houses. The ones on the left-hand side back onto the private Moseley Park; there’s a locked gate into the park near the bottom of the hill. It’s one of these houses that forms the lair for crime boss Vernon Ball, with its basement flat, its garden, and its view over the park and pool. I couldn’t possibly say which particular house, but here’s a general street view to give you some idea.

3. At the end of Chantry Road turn left into Park Hill, past more impressive Victorian houses, then find a safe place to cross either Salisbury Road or Edgbaston Road until you’re on the diagonally opposite corner. From here walk a short distance along Edgbaston Road to one of the main entrances to Cannon Hill Park.

4. Cannon Hill Park is a vast city park donated to the people of Birmingham by Miss Louisa Ryland and opened in 1873. It covers over 80 acres – more if you add the woodland, conservation areas and nature reserve next to it, and there are lots of different walks and paths to choose. Look out for the foundations of the old glasshouse, the boating lake, the scale model of the Elan Valley reservoirs which provide the city’s water supply – and the bench where Todd met Inspector Suzanne Charlton, and got pecked by a duck.

5. After a good mooch round the park (and a takeaway coffee from the cafe, assuming it’s open and assuming you’re allowed to) retrace your steps to Moseley.

I hope the walk inspires you to explore this historic and interesting corner of Birmingham but please bear in mind that current restrictions mean you can’t travel outside of your ‘local area’ (whatever that means) for exercise. So if you’re based outside the city, please bookmark this for another day! And if you’d like to read about the various locations of ‘Gravy Train’ in more detail, why not treat yourself to a copy of the book? You can find it here.

Review of 2020 – such as it was…

I don’t need to tell anyone what a strange and unpleasant year 2020 has been. Lockdown after lockdown; concerts, trips away and writing events postponed, postponed again then cancelled; hardly even able to meet friends for a cuppa; it’s been depressing, demoralising, and (quite frankly) crap.

We’ve got off lightly compared to many, but even so I’ve found it increasingly difficult to watch or read crime, let alone write it. I’ve taken refuge in the comforting fluffiness of romance, and Tess has got rather neglected in the process.

It hasn’t been a complete washout. I got the rights back on my dark novella ‘Raise the Blade’, re-edited it, designed a spiffing cover (if I do say so myself) and self-published it during the summer. It’s here, if you haven’t yet tried it yet and fancy giving it a go. I hope you like it! I’ve also written one short story – a sequel to Singing From the Same Sheet, which was published in the Rogue anthology by Near to the Knuckle – which I’m hoping might see the light of day at some point next year. And I’ve also been working, at times, on editing a new novella, probably called Embers of Bridges (yes, more Pink Floyd I’m afraid!), which follows a gang of petty thieves as they rob and bicker their way round the hot tubs and canals of Birmingham. There’s a long way to go on it yet, but again, I’m hopeful it might put in an appearance at some point next year.

In terms of TV we’ve tried various new drama series, and given up on several of them. Mystery Road 2 was a particular disappointment (filled with unrealistic scenarios and procedural WTFs), and The Valhalla Murders was just… hysterical. For all the wrong reasons. But there’s a new series of Spiral coming soon which ought to be good, and I’m determined to finish catching up on Brassic 2, Tin Star: Liverpool and The Vienna Blood.

But while this wretched virus continues to run rampant around the world, it just might not be any time soon…

Sloggers vs Peaky Blinders

Has anyone else been watching the BBC series Britain’s Biggest Dig, about the archaeology ahead of the new HS2 railway line between London and Birmingham? It’s been fascinating, not least in describing how excavations of two huge burial grounds, one in either city, have provided a wealth of detail about working people’s everyday lives.

There’ve been three episodes so far, one about London, one about Birmingham, and one split half-and-half between the two. All three were great, but obviously the Brum ones appealed more to me, because I know the area of the city they were working in quite well: it’s on the edge of the city centre, and my bus trundled past one end of the Park Street burial ground most Saturdays on my way back from shopping trips. It was a quiet green backwater lined with trees and dotted with Victorian headstones, and it’s sad to think it’s now gone and will soon be replaced by a vast railway terminus building. But hey ho, that’s progress I suppose!

The third episode concentrated wholly on Birmingham, and revealed all kinds of detail about the people flooding into the city to find work in the new factories and workshops (often in the jewellery and metal-working trades). One of the most fascinating insights was from the occasional use of ‘grave goods’ (things buried with the bodies), which is unusual in Christian burials but hinted at the places the people had come from. Several were buried with dinner plates, for instance, which suggests a Welsh background, and others had crucifixes and were almost certainly the fore-runners of the strong Irish community that still exists in the city to this day.

Best of all, though, was the segment on the street gangs running rife in these areas, known originally as Sloggers and later on as… wait for it… Peaky Blinders! These were made up of young, working class men who used their brief moments of leisure time to gather on waste ground and fight each other, using fists, boots, belts with heavy metal buckles, and knives.

The programme interviewed the well-known Brummie historian Dr Carl Chinn, who revealed that his own great-grandfather belonged to one of these gangs. And he also cast doubt on the theory that the Peaky Blinders got their name from their habit of stuffing their cap brims with razor blades. Apparently the name has less to do with blinding victims, and more to do with fashion – the angle they wore their hats to show off their quiffs!

All in all this was a brilliant series and I wish there’d been more episodes. The tv guides all say there are four but there’s no mention of the fourth anywhere, even on the BBC’s own website. A shame. I’d like to know more.

A funny thing happened on the way to the canal…

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I just had to dash in and share this hilarious news item from (where else?) Birmingham. Looks like even the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police could have lifted his evening’s work straight from the pages of ‘Gravy Train’.

I swear this is a genuine incident and not something I’ve made up. Although given that it involves fishing bags out of canals, I might well have… Just shows those canals really are handy receptacles for all manner of junk!

Wish You Were Here…?

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The title of this blog post is particularly ironic. I’ve realised that tonight we were meant to be in Birmingham for the Nick Mason / Saucerful of Secrets concert.

For anyone who doesn’t follow rock music, Nick was the drummer in Pink Floyd. He’s put together his own prog rock band, Saucerful of Secrets, and together they’ve been on tour performing some of Floyd’s earlier music.

As a mega fan of all things Pink Floyd I was really looking forward to the event but thanks to Covid-19 it’s had to be postponed. Currently it’s scheduled to take place in October but there are no guarantees and it may have to be put off until some time next year.

I absolutely understand the reasons, but you could say I’ve gone from ‘High Hopes’ to ‘Wish You Were Here’ in one sad step…

Jericho excerpt

Recoil_cropI mentioned yesterday that my short story ‘Jericho’ features in ‘Recoil’, the brand new anthology from Shotgun Honey. Well, here’s a little snippet from the beginning of the story to whet your appetite:

“Will there be a massive bang, Uncle Ryan?  Will it be like the Towering Inferno?”

Ryan sat back on his heels and wiped one sleeve across his burning forehead.  Even now, after all these years and with all his experience, he still sweated like a pig.  Partly that was the danger, of course, although he minimised that by taking every safety precaution in the book.  And a few that weren’t.  Mostly it was the sheer fiddliness of the work – the blocks of explosive to tape in place, the fuses and detonators to prepare, the wires to strip and insert.  In a place this size that could take hours, sometimes even days.  Every last minute seasoned with the thought that if he got a single detail wrong, people could die.

“No.  The whole point is it won’t be like a sodding inferno,” he said.  “That’s why I do all this preparation, so the whole thing will fold up like a house of cards.  No explosions, no fires, nobody gets hurt.  There’s just a big cloud of dust at the end.”

“Oh.  Right.”

Will sounded disappointed.  Typical bloody teenager, Ryan thought.  Always after the biggest and the best.  Couldn’t see that half the time, not having something go kaboom was the best.  Ryan knew that because he was the best – the best in the business, the best in this neck of the woods.  He’d brought down more buildings than most folk had set foot in, and all without a single mishap.  They didn’t call him The Leveller for nothing.  But Will was young; he’d learn soon enough.  Least, he would if he wanted to get on in this job.  Get it wrong and he’d be dust along with the factories, the cooling towers, the outdated blocks of flats.

Blocks like this one – the last still standing on the Castle Bromwich estate.  Forty years ago the planners had thought they were a good idea; now they couldn’t get rid of them fast enough.  Ryan had demolished another two six months ago, though he tried not to think about that…

There’s plenty more where that came from, and another 22 stories by amazing noir authors, so why not head over to Amazon and grab a copy of the book now?

Shotgun Honey 4: Recoil – out today

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I’m sure I’ve said it before, but books are like buses. Nothing new for ages and then two come along at once!

Today it’s the turn of this tasty collection of noir stories from Shotgun Honey, entitled ‘Recoil’.  It’s packed with good stuff from a grand total of 23 authors, many of them well known on the crime and noir circuits. And alongside those is my own offering, a dark story called ‘Jericho’.

In this, the Bible story of Joshua blowing down the walls of Jericho takes on an all-too personal meaning for a demolition expert working on a tower block in Birmingham. You could say the moral of the tale is not to trust the local crime boss – or an aggrieved youngster looking to make their mark on the world. As usual with my stories it doesn’t necessarily end well!

‘Recoil’ has been released today and you can find it as paperback and e-book on Amazon. I’ll post a few more details about the story in the coming days, but in the meantime why not check it out – before you get run over by the proverbial bus!

Raise the Blade ebook available now!

bladecoverGreat news today. After a brief delay while Amazon checked my rights, my darkly humorous psychological noir ‘Raise the Blade’ has gone live on both Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.

I designed the cover art myself, using a wonderful photograph by Twilightzone on Pixabay.com. The rest of the book has had a quick spruce up but is otherwise unchanged from the version published several years ago now by Caffeine Nights.

So if you missed it first time round, or were put off by the paperback price, or just fancy the ebook to add to your collection, now’s your chance. The Kindle version is available for only £2.99 (or the equivalent in your currency) whilst the book is completely free on Kindle Unlimited.

Here’s a couple of handy links for you to buy on Amazon UK or Amazon US. And if you do take the plunge then thank you, and I hope you enjoy the read.

Sweeney Todd – very odd

sweeneyStuck in lockdown and desperately looking for something different to watch on telly, I came across the 2012 movie The Sweeney, based on the old 1970s TV series. I’d never watched it before as I’d been put off by the low star-ratings in the Radio Times, but this time I thought I’d give it a go.

Bad move. Ten minutes in I was already regretting it, as a car full of unpleasant people made unpleasant jokes about more unpleasant people, en route to a ‘blagging’ at a warehouse somewhere in London. The twist? This wasn’t the baddies, this was the police. Or more specifically, the Flying Squad, nick-named (in London rhyming slang) Sweeney Todd.

Once at the warehouse they drove cars through the scenery and beat the living sh*t out of a number of bad guys, while still being unpleasant. And this was apparently supposed to be a massive success.

The action switched to the Flying Squad HQ, where more of the same characters hung around being unpleasant to each other, and then to a dodgy international bank, where they made a huge change by being unpleasant to the bank’s manager instead. And there was a scene involving suspending some baddie by the ankles from the top of a tall building, which was done to death in The Sweeney’s fellow seventies cop show The Professionals and about as original as mud.

At that point, I switched off. I’d lost all interest in the characters, the plot, the script, or pretty much anything else. I have no idea what happened in the end (except that it was probably unpleasant) and I had no great wish to find out. The reason? It was just. so. dull. Dull, cliched, and wholly wrong. If they’d chosen to stick with the TV series’ 1970s setting it might, just about, have worked. They didn’t. They updated it to the second decade of the 21st century. But they forgot to update the characters’ attitudes at the same time, so what came out of their mouths wasn’t just (yeah, okay) unpleasant, it was also horribly out of date.

I’m not saying an occasional police officer doesn’t speak like that, or even behave like that, from time to time. The point is, it would no longer be seen as acceptable. And that seemed to be the problem, because at no point in the 40-or-so unpleasant minutes I watched was that made clear. The end result was that characters we were supposed to sympathise with (the “good guys”, if you like) came across as thugs. And no different from the baddies they were supposed to be targeting. And utterly unlikeable.

I didn’t watch all that many of the original TV shows, but I don’t remember it being quite as unsympathetic as that. Yes, Jack Regan and George Carter were tough men, capable of doling out the violence if it got the baddies off the streets. But they also had hearts, and a conscience, and they were so well brought to life by John Thaw and Dennis Waterman that you felt like they were real. Ray Winstone and Ben Drew weren’t nearly as charismatic; Winstone in particular grated with his growly dialogue and endless swearing (something else that wasn’t in the original version, and which felt less uber-modern and cool, and more just, well, unpleasant).

Do I now see why it only ever gets 2 stars? Yup. Will I be giving this another go at some point? Absolutely not. Shame, as with the right cast, script and direction it could have been a worthy tribute to a classic TV show…