Monday, 31 May 2010

The Last Picture Show?

Moon. It’s a recent film, science fiction, liked by reviewers, has an interesting production history and the Bowie thing in its favour. You’d think that in a small town people would be interested in spending a Friday night nursing a beer or glass of wine in front of a big screen and unwinding after the stresses and strains of a week watching the movie unfold.

Apparently not. Turnout at our film society was down to 9, the lowest recorded so far in its history.

It’s difficult to say what’s going wrong, though committee hands must be held high for some early publicity gaffs (ie no publicity at the beginning of the year).

Other films in 2010 have been ‘All About Eve’, ‘Up’, ‘Let The Right One In’ and ‘The Wrestler’. Next time round it’s ‘The Cove’, a documentary about marine conservation (even more interesting in light of the BP disaster) that pans out more like a thriller than a run of the mill investigation. Sounds good to me.

Earlier in May, a free film screening was put on for our townsfolk and those in the surrounding areas. ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ was the fodder for the children, ‘Sherlock Holmes’ for the adults.

Turnout for the kids’ film was high and for the grown-ups reasonable, but there were new faces and enough of them to make it worthwhile as a community activity.

The idea for the free film event wasn’t born entirely out of altruism. It was hoped that the profile of the society would be raised, that new members would join or that people would come along to the films they are interested in from that point on. After netting one new member, and a second by giving away a membership in a raffle, it seems that what is on offer just isn’t enticing enough.

On the plus side, we did a good thing for our town.

Like any community event, it happened only on the back of hard work and planning. People have to be prepared to make the effort to create something from nothing or to take on roles that have already been set up by previous volunteers in order to keep something rolling. We made the effort, but it seems it might have been misdirected, at least in recent months.

I wasn’t there in the beginning. Apparently there were around 80 members in those early days.

When I did join, the first two films ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘The Lives Of Others’ were full houses. Both were well-received and drummed up enthusiasm. Where did all of it go?

As far as I’m concerned this season’s programme is as strong as any of the previous ones. It’s rich and varied and not just films typically available at the cinemas in Edinburgh. The Cameo and Filmhouse would be our competition, but I doubt we’re losing customers to them, though it might be where everyone has to go soon enough if audience figures don’t pick up fairly quickly.

What is it about small town life that brings out the lethargy in us?

Like many places there’s a High Street at its centre. The old sections have been extended by mass-building projects that are set to continue for a few years yet. Many people living there can get by without ever going into the town – the train station gets them into the city, the supermarket on the outskirts provides many of the other needs. Internet shopping may provide what’s left. Perhaps they never get to see a poster from their estates.

There are also lots of people with young families who, like me, moved out of Edinburgh so that they could afford the luxury of a garden and life by the sea. It might just be that when we become parents we’re so busy trying to nurture our kids we forget to look after ourselves or don’t have any energy left. The children’s showing would suggest that – packed out when we’re providing activities for the young.

We should never forget that we provide the role models for our children whether we like that or not. If we want readers, writers, artists, good manners, healthy attitudes, broad vocabularies, work ethics, liberal attitudes to emerge from the cocoons we place our children in, we need to be demonstrating those things in our daily lives. It’s the way things go. Want curious kids, be curious. Want a broad outlook, broaden your own horizons. Want sailors, buy a boat; boxers, get down to the gym; chefs, bake cakes. Want someone who might go to reading groups, film clubs, knitting circles, join them. Of course, it will never be that simple, but you probably get the gist.

I don’t know where we go next. It’s not cheap paying for performance rights, and if things continue in the same way it might really get to be Film Society RIP.

What I remember from the Last Picture Show is a sense of small town gloom. There’s a claustrophobic haze, an inward looking population, a sense of no escape. The Picture House offers something to do, a view of other worlds and perspectives, a sense of hope. When it goes, there’ll be even less for the kids to do, less hope for them, less reason to seek new pastures.

At least there’s no tumbleweed where I live.

It’s an SOS this post. Save Our Society. How would you start? What have you done to pull something like this out of the fire? How can we turn those people who profess to be interested into attenders? No post will be seen as invalid.

Miss Mosey: Nobody wants to come to shows no more. Kids got baseball in the summer, television all the time. If Sam had lived, I believe we could've kept it goin'. But I just didn't have the know-how.

Duane: Won't be much to do in town with the picture show closed.

Sonny: Yeah.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Hobnail Haiku

Today at the boot sale

Size 10 steelies

Tonight I'll sort out some shins

Friday, 28 May 2010

Donald Ray Recommends

I had the honour of receiving an email from Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff.

He'd seen the review posted last week and also received my email (in which I attempted to shake his hand through cyberspace).

Anyway, it was great to hear from him.

The outstanding news is that he's working on his novel. If I could send him momentum and inspiration, I certainly would. The sooner it's out the better as far as I'm concerned.

He's also reading a novel by a man named Frank Bill entitled 'Donnybrook' so he can conjure up a blurb. DRP says 'He certainly out-grits me'. I don't believe that for a second, but still checked it out. Hillbilly noir, apparently. Looks fab. It's on the list. You have any sense, you'll add it to yours.

I also stumbled into a rather nice blog when doing a search. Do Some Damage is over at so go have a look.


Inside the cloakroom that famous day
I pulled the zip a little way.
But it got trapped just as I started
And though I pulled, it never parted.
The thing was jammed, it wouldn’t budge,
I called for help, in teacher trudged.
I knew I should have stayed in bed,
The day my coat stuck on my head.

The teacher tugged and wriggled in vain
Then wriggled and tugged and wriggled again.
The blasted thing just wouldn’t shift,
So he grabbed the collar ready to lift
And with a huge and sudden tug
The hole just stopped around my lugs.
I had this sense of terrible dread,
The day my coat stuck on my head.

The hole was small, my head is not
Which thickened up this awful plot
My friend, Lorraine, began to titter
If I could’ve seen, I might have hit her
Instead I ran out of the school
No longer seen as someone cool
My face it glowed a sunset red
The day my coat stuck on my head.

The world was dark, I couldn’t see
Why was this happening to me?
I heard the voice of our Headmaster
Which made my legs run even faster
Until a lamp-post blocked my route
I saw planets jump and new stars shoot
I really thought that I was dead
The day my coat stuck on my head.

An ambulance soon upon the scene
The medics in their shiny green
Cut off the coat in seconds flat
The thing in ruins, fancy that.
When I got home my mum went mad
She said that I’d been really bad
For supper just some old dry bread
The day my coat stuck on my head

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Flight To Freedom

I've followed Twitter for a short while now and have been delighted by suggestions of great reads, all recommended by people who know what they're talking about.

Not one to do things by halves, I've now accumulated a huge pile of said recommendations and there are still more in transit somewhere as I speak (boxing tales, a couple of Joe Lansdale's - it's been a while since I delighted in one of those, a couple of Harry Crews and some random bits and pieces that I've forgotten for now.

It's great having a list of books to go looking for, and even better to have the immediate gratification of a surf around shops, publishers and auction sites. By shopping around, I've found some great value deals on books that deserve to cost more than they do.

Best deal of all, not one likely to be bettered, is a free book.

I paid absolutely diddly squat. Not for the book. Not for postage. Rien.

Even more impressive given that it came all the way from the USofA.

It was another Tweet that put me onto it. Music to my ears - practically a dawn chorus - to see I wouldn't have to lay anything out.

It arrived this morning, a lovely surprise as it had escaped my mind.

How did it look, this free book? Wafer thin? Ripped pages? Poor production values? Poor content?

None of the above. It looks good, feels good and smells good as any new book should. I've dipped into it and my first impression is very positive.

The publisher is onto something really new.

Concord Free Press (http://www.concordfreepress/) are publishing the work of talented authors and distributing them worldwide for nothing. The writers get a fantastic audience and the readers get a little stimulation.

There are two conditions as far as I can tell.

Firstly, I have to donate some unspecified amount of money to an unspecified charity or person in need. 50p to someone begging on a street corner would be fine, as would £1000 to Amnesty. It's entirely up to me. I doubt I'll do anything too interesting for my contribution, but if I do I'll let you know.

Secondly, when I finish the book I have to pass it on to someone else. Easy.

4 books have had the treatment so far: 'Give and Take' by Stona Fitch; 'Push Comes To Shove' by Wesley Brown; 'The Next Queen Of Heaven' by Gregory Maguire; and my own 'IOU', a collection of writing on money.

If you were to go there now, you'd be ordering IOU. Looks good to me. I'd recommend it.

And if you think it won't work, I can tell you that this venture as the world's first exploration of generosity-publishing has already raised $135, 250 for an array of causes. Well done guys.

So, if you need a good read, if you have nothing better to do or are simply curious, take a trip using the link above. You won't get better value anywhere, guaranteed.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010


3rd July 2004
Alwyn’s Stores
Lemongrass ..........1........£1.49
Cumin (jar)..............1........£1.75
Boxer ShortS (2pk)..1........ £4.99
Beaujolais (red)......2.........£8.98
Garam Masala .......1.........£1.88
Durex cdms (3pk)...1........£4.25
Nan bread ............1........£1.00

You have saved...............£0.00

Thank you for shopping at
Alwyn’s Stores

It were in an old suit I’m taking down to Oxfam. The jacket smells of dust and sweat. Cheaper to get rid of it than to take it to the cleaners.

Could tell a few stories that bag of clothes.

I’d never bought lemongrass before. Haven’t since. Still got it in' fridge.

It were a first date. Wanted to impress. Took me hours to get right, then I had to get myself ready.

She were gorgeous in her summer dress and glittery shoes. Her voice were smoother than a cream egg.

Turned out she hated mushrooms. And aubergines. And curry. And all of my jokes. I didn’t get to use the condoms for months. Least I beat the sell-by date.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Smoking In Fiction. Where Next?

One day, I'll sit down and do a bit of research for an entry instead of leaping out of the bath like Archimedes and allowing myself to drip dry.

There I was, minding my own business and letting my mind drift around in the steam and the bubbles, when I caught a thought. It was of Bogart and Godard. More specifically, Bogart and Breathless (Un Bout De Souffle) and the way the cigarettes practically lived in their mouths. Belmondo's final act in dying is to take a final puff before the butt falls to the ground.

Made me consider writing.

I looked back at a screenplay (I call it that because that's what I thought I was writing at the time) and was amazed at how much my main man smoked. He could even light up in the staff office of the bookshop where he worked.

If I ever return to it, there'll be a whole lot of reworking needed and that's just to clear up the ash.

Cigarettes are an easy prop for a writer.

They give an immediate impression of a character as someone who is fragile in some way. There's a chink in the armour. Maybe they were brought up in the rough and tough, maybe life just caught up with them, but we know they need a crutch simply because of their addiction. It makes them seem extreme in some way, peripheral to the norm, outcast from the healthy and the comfortable.

They offer lots of action when we get stuck. Light a fag, feel for the packet, offer one across the table, keep the wind off the flame, the trails of smoke, the clouds and columns that we talk about. You can borrow a ciggy, be desperate for one, warm hands around them, go shopping at the store, light one straight after another. I guess there have been a few eaten or shoved in various places over the years, too. People open windows to blow out of, step into the rain because they're not allowed to spark up in the house. If they've given up, there's something easy for them to think about. They smell, they collect DNA and lipstick, they are/were ubiquitous (like the word ubiquitous has become).

There are the accessories. The zippo - it clicks, feels cold, starts fires, has a weight. The ashtray - for leaving butts in, for centring attention at the middle of a table, as a weapon, as a thing of beauty. The boots - for grinding the buts. The cancer. The gravel voice. The electronic talking device. The nicotine stains.

Crime writers (and of course, there are exceptions) use them more than their counterparts, I reckon. And I don't have any problems with that at all.

My question is, and I'm not sure I mentioned that I had one, what will happen if the smoking bans of the world really kick in?

What will replace the humble cigarette to cover all the above?

Drink and drugs can't do it in the same way. They involve changing states of mind and, when we're completely with a character, a changing state of mind is unsettling.

Golf? Yeah, right.

Fruit? Driving? Breathing? Chewing gum?

I don't know. It's a question.

Maybe it's down to the sci-fi gang to work it out, to show us how it will be.

If you think you've got an idea, post it up. It would help me find a less obvious way to keep my narrative plates spinning.

Poetry Events

Top ten poetry moments then.

It's a different ballgame altogether, not least because poets can get away with so much more (even more reason to applaud Guthrie for his jazz accompaniment).

It's also different for me because it was so closely tied up with another true love of mine, music, when I first encountered it in a place other than school.

I'll not beat around the bush. Here goes.

1. Linton Kwesi Johnson. His mix of the Caribbean and Brixton, his sense of rhythm and rhyme, the integrity of the man and his politics, and then just look at his picture. He really did blow me away. LKJ - poetry royalty.

2. John Cooper Clarke. 1979 where it all started. The crazy beanpole in a suit, a mop of black on the top and a carrier bag full of writing. Married a monster from outer space, wrote a love song comparing a woman to an electric heater and had a thing with Nico. Alongside Elvis C and Richard Hell, it was a hell of a night for a young man.

3. Allen Ginsberg. Sometimes, being in the presence of a legend is enough. He exuded an energy, a bit like a minor deity. I didn't get to touch the hem of his cloak, but I heard his words and about his love of men. A beautiful thing.

4. Brian Patten. He could so easily be higher. Gently scouse, sweat and nervous energy. A shared beer on a lawn. It was, and still is, time to tidy up my life. The inspiration for the Rue Bella Magazine (RIP).

5. Roger McGough. More fun and laughs than Brian, but he can deftly handle the saddest of things and celebrate the most delicate.

6. Simon Armitage. Not just the northern accent or the absolute love of stories and images. His work is superb and even better when brought to life by the preambles.

7. Ivor Cutler. Even came on his bike, the crazy bugger. The potatoes were like stones.

8. Seamus Heaney. What a lyricist. He's lower down because he's probably too good for my brain to comprehend. Lovely Irish warmth. When I was published alongside him last winter, it was the high point of my writing tower to date.

9. Benjamin Zephaniah. It was a Reggae festival the first time, Aswad and Steel Pulse and others, down at the Brixton academy. Dis poetry had a riddim that rocked. Told us about meeting Lady Die to boot. And remember, a turkey is for life...

10. Gerry Cambridge/Bette O'Callaghan. Cheating to get an extra in. Gerry because I'd already finished my set and could sit back and revel in his words and Bette, also after my sets back in Camden Town for her rugged humour and ability to cut like diamonds.

So there you have it.

Another top 10? Unlikely pop-pickers, though the idea of a gig list seems sadly challenging.

Till soon.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

I never make lists. They don't suit me.

To do lists are the worst. I make 'em and I lose 'em - like new loves, I guess.

When you set up a blog, you have to write something. Here I am scraping my barrel.

Mostly I'm still reeling from the Pollock collection. I think I'm experiencing withdrawal attacks.

Here's a list then. It's of the author events I've attended over the years. It's a top ten.

Some are there because of their writing, some hit the spot at the right time, some were really entertaining and some I loved because of a voice or an accent. There were hundreds to choose from. Here are the ones I went for (anyone with me at any other events that I've omitted, please send me a reminder).

1. Paul Auster. Hell he was handsome and darkly brooding. Not to mention he'd written my favourite book at the time (New York Trilogy). He also has one of the greatest voices I've heard.

2. Allan Guthrie. Hell he was handsome...well he was amazing. I'm merging a couple of his events together, the 'Two Way Split' launch where he answered his own questions and 'Hard Man' set to jazz.

3. Richard Ford. Like the Mississippi, he meanders. Another unforgettable tone and accent and strangely gentlemanly.

4. Richard Price. Shy. Deep. An honour.

5. Maragaret Atwood. What a mind she has. It's like her memory is photographic and is also able to find humour in anything.

6. Ed Bunker/Patrick McCabe Great storytellers. A magical day where Nick Cave played piano and I went backstage because I could. Even met Kylie (her eyes were really popping). Ed told funny tales about prison life, Pat 'The Butcher Boy' - enough said.

7. Dave Eggers. I think he really does have a superhero shop. Mind you, I'd have believed anything he said.

8. Kate Atkinson. Her books are brilliant and she has a pleasing modesty.

9. Louis De Bernieres/Michael Morpurgo. Maybe because they were teachers. Gives me hope. Morpurgo had the children in the palm of his hand (most of the adults, too) and De Bernieres had a brilliant short story of police corruption and gangsters in Rio.

10. Haif Kureishi. Weaver of magic.

So there you are.

It feels entirely wrong already.

Next - top 10 poetry events.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010


Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock

One Man's Opinion

“When you first heard him talking about it, you’d figure he was batshit crazy, but really he was just trying to latch onto something that would fill up his days so he didn’t have to think about what a fucking mess he’d made of everything. It’s the same for most of us; forgetting our lives might be the best we’ll ever do.”

On my bookshelves, higgledy-piggledy as they are, Raymond Carver’s ‘No Heroics Please’ has been living next to Tristan Egolf’s ‘Lord Of The Barnyard’. At first sight, it would be difficult to see a connection. Now I’ve finished Donald Ray Pollock’s ‘Knockemstiff’ I realise there’s been a reason for it all along – ‘Knockemstiff’ can nestle in between them and, almost impossible to believe as it is, there are times when Pollock’s work knocks the others’ socks off.

If I put up my Nick Cave books, albums and CD’s I’ll have created a section worthy of its own label. ‘On The Rails Of Pain And Suffering’ I think I’ll call it.

A few months ago a friend of mine gave me my copy.

I think I loved it straight away.

Its production values make it the classiest looking book I own (excluding some old pulp artwork standards, perhaps). The publishers, Harvill Secker, must have put it together as a labour of love and clearly understood what they were dealing with. Now I’ve been inside, I can see why.

It even feels special, I kid you not.

Turns out it wasn’t just any old book I’d been given. More of a minor miracle.

Why is it so good and why might Carver, Egolf and Cave be suitable bedfellows?

Carver, of course, is held by many to be amongst the greatest exponents of the short story art. I’m not well-read enough or deep enough to be able to make such claims, but in my experience I’d have to put him right up there. It’s the way he offers snapshots into people’s lives, moments or short passages of time that pack a whole lifetime into a few pages or turn a life on its head within the blink of an eye. Even the most trivial of actions in his work give us enormous wedges of information. His stories are beautiful things to behold.

So are Pollock’s. He has that superb efficiency about him as he leads us through tale after tale set in the areas surrounding the town ‘Knockemstiff’. He goes further than just revealing the lives of the characters however - we get a sense of their entire ancestry and of the history of the land. And it's 'tight as a mouse's ear'.
Carver meets the devil? Carver wins, TKO. Pollock meets Carver - Carver ends up on the seat of his pants - didn't see it coming; a lot of folk lost their bets that night.

Egolf? 'Barnyard' deals with roughness and depravity beautifully, blood, guts and all. Pollock's the same, only he can have your toes curling with only a few strokes of his pen.
Cave? A master of weaving stories, of allowing his characters to reveal their innermost turmoil and frailties. Ditto Pollock.

Knockemstiff is a real town. Donald Ray grew up around those parts. It’s not a classy place. More of a falling on its arse, in the doldrums, no hope, backwater of a town where there’s nothing much to do and nobody much to do it with. You get a sense of that even before you start reading. It’s the first book I’ve read with a map in it that hasn’t been for my children in a long time, possibly since I was a kid. The map works as it centres you immediately in place. The rest of it unfolds as the tales of its inhabitants are told, overlap and retrace each other’s steps to form layer upon layer of despair.

Don’t expect an easy ride if you feel like going along. You’ll meet violent men, glue-sniffers, speed-freaks, mescaline lovers, iron-pumpers, angel-dusters, murderers, draft-dodgers, those on the pull, trailer-trash, the homeless, the good, the fat and the ugly. They play with themselves and each other right in front of you, exposing themselves in a way that characters so rarely do on the page.

You can smell them and their fish sticks, the shit and the piss and the blood. You get to see the flakes of dead skin and the dandruff and taste the bologna on bread. You practically feel oppressed by the Ohio sky. It stinks and it hurts and it’s tough. It’s the way life is.

“I closed my eyes and sank deeper and deeper into that lonely world known only to those who sleep in abandoned vehicles.”

Here the people are all too aware of their situation. Their stories are told in such a matter of fact way that before you know it, the craziest kinds of shit are completely normal. Nobody is judged for their actions, it’s just the way things are. More often than not, the consequences they reap don’t seem fair as they collect heartbreak like the women collect men and the men collect women.

It should be bleak. It should be an impossible read working through from one story to another, but it’s utterly engrossing.

I didn’t manage to read more than two or three at a sitting. Each story has such gravity and power that it needs to be digested long after the book is closed. Perhaps they can be compared to rich chocolates or desserts – a couple at a time are amazing, too many and you’re gonna puke.

The stories are so individual it would take far too long to give you anything meaningful. Suffice to say you should get hold of a copy if you haven’t already done so. The end of one of the stories finds a nutshell and squeezes in some of the book’s essence:

“He would fill up the plastic bag again with Bactine, and I would sit and listen to him suck the cold fog down into his lungs. The smell of it would sicken me, and I would crack the window. The snow would slowly cover the windshield. Jimmy’s eyes would turn as red and sticky as candy, and his head would fall back against his seat in a dream. If he were lucky tonight, maybe he would see something that he hadn’t seen before. And then it would be my turn.”

It’s the kind of book that will inspire you to greater things as a writer one minute and make you want to give up the next. The kind of writing that has you wanting to meet the author and to shake his hand and tell him. Take your hat off. Magnificent.

The quotes on the back are a testament to the book's brilliance and, for once, they are spot on. The only thing I'm not sure about is the humour they managed to find. For me I was feeling for those guys every step of the way. I may have cracked a smile, but laugh I did not. I guess that's a matter of the way I'm wired and maybe hints at my shallow interpretation of the book merely at face value. Perhaps it would be better for me to put it down to cultural difference. I didn't care, anyway - I certainly didn't open the book expecting to find laughs.

I hope that for Mr Pollock, unlike any of his characters, he was able to escape from his hometown through his writing. I'd hate to think that he's lying back in some shack popping a couple of black ones because the effects of the last ones are wearing off. I hope he found the freedom Big Bernie Crivens craves in 'I Start Over'.

My week in Knockemstiff has come to an end.

I’m so very glad I was only visiting. However, I shall return - again and again and again.

And Mr Pollock. Please can I have some more?

Monday, 17 May 2010

Reader Ecstasy

I was at a party in 1997 or so. I'd drunk too much, had taken medication that left me unable to read others and their reactions and was bristling for an argument.

I found one with the man who owned the house we'd turned into an all-nighter. He had the computer on, was browsing on the web and showing it off. He was handsome, interesting, lived in Hampstead and had a lovely actress wife. I guess I was jealous as hell.

I decided to side with the Luddites, made a shambolic objection on some kind of political or economic grounds that it was all nonsense, a waste of people's lives, a capitalist monstrosity.

The man, who knew what he was talking about, thought I was crazy. He was right.

I managed to clear the room and ended up sitting alone, utterly perplexed.

Next time I saw him with his lovely wife was at our mutual friend's film screening at the Everyman. I sidled up and apologised. It was painfully embarrassing for me in the sober light of day. Not something I enjoyed. Thankfully he had more good grace than I and accepted the apology. In truth, I don't think he had even seen me, hardly recognised me at all. I could have let it go. I was forced by some deep seated need in me to say sorry. Damn my conscience.

It feels like I'm in a better place these days. Electronic Technologies and on-line developments are just things that happen. More than anything else, my pursuit of hardware is limited by financial restrictions rather than principle.

Which, having beaten around the bush, brings me to e-books.

I know they're here. I know there are great reasons to get one. I also know I can't afford one just now, so it's not something I need to worry about just yet.

If I had the money, would I buy one?

The answer is no, not just yet.


At the moment I'm reading Knockemstiff. It's a thing of beauty, really, a cardboard cover with wrapped spine, it looks good, feels great and smells fantastic. In it I have bookmarks that were made by my daughters (anxious to avoid favouritism), one of hearts one of footballs. I like to carry it around and I like opening the pages. There are aesthetic reasons behind this pleasure.

I like bookshops. They're about the only shops I can browse in. Big stores, junk-shops, charity stalls, boot-sales, they're all the same to me.

I also like online shopping - you can find everything and take the lowest price. Best of all is the thud on the floor when the post arrives.

It's a pleasure to buy books, to hunt them down and devour them. Brings out the caveman in me like the booze and the pills.

E-readers. I'll get one, you'll see. I'll probably tell you about it. For now, though, I still can't get over the price barrier.

£250. That's twenty hard-backs. Forty new paperbacks from the shop, fifty from Amazon and E-Bay. One-hundred and twenty five from charity shops. Two hundred from boot sales.

All good reasons for holding fire for now.

So Santa, if you're awake, technology for on the move reading Xmas 2012, please. Promise I'll be good.


Sunday, 16 May 2010

Down Deep by Mike Croft

One Man's Opinion - One That Got Away

Here’s one you almost certainly didn’t read earlier.

I can say with some confidence given what happened to it.

It was a darned shame.

The biggest problem for the book is its cover. Of course, it shouldn’t matter, but it does. It looks as though it’s been designed to sit face front at an airport or train station, only somehow it’s completely missed that boat. Even more unfortunately it wasn’t wearing a life-jacket. It practically had to swim single-handedly to the bookseller’s shelves to find a spot and be ignored like some dusty teddy in a toy shop.

Luckily for dusty teddies, they always find an owner in the end, someone to love and look after them and give them a cuddle when they need it most. That didn’t really happen to Down Deep. It hardly made a splash in the book world and the big shame is, it’s worthy of making more than a few waves.

Part of the problem may have been having a publisher (the excellent Alma) not versed in the production of titles within this genre. I get the sense that they didn’t really know how to play it.

It’s an environmental thriller where science meets science and the winner, well that’s the whole damned planet when it comes down to it.

Strange things are afoot in the world of marine mammals. It seems there’s been a mass communication between them and that they’ve moved to tell somebody something. Sadly for the mammals, there’s only one man prepared to listen.

After the strange death of a dolphin in captivity a whole host of whales, a school of thought that contains just about every species imaginable, swim at full speed and beach themselves on Brighton’s pebbles. It’s unprecedented. The whales shouldn’t even be in those waters, let alone be seen together.

It’s a headache for everyone, especially those were sunbathing there at the time.

How the hell they’re going to deal with the whales is anyone’s guess. Our marine expert, Roddy Ormond, seems able to see beyond the health and safety issues and bats for his friends. He’ll be pilloried for it in the end, but his heart is with those from the sea.

OK. I know what you’re thinking. It’s a way out plot, might be hard to swallow. Might stretch your imaginations to their limits. Might not be the book you’re after. Of course, you might be right, but if you’ve ever enjoyed a Michael Crichton or any brand of thriller, if you get hold of this you’re in for a treat.

It’s a credit to Croft that he keeps it real, keeps us believing from start to finish. The beaching of the whales is amazingly told. It has power and speed, but most of all we’re really rooting for the lead whale, who’s determination to save the seas goes beyond looking after himself.

The bad guy is completely ruthless and incredibly sad. As well-drawn a scumbag as you’ll have seen for some time. He’s not your typical hard guy or your demonic genius, he’s more your lonely, self-absorbed, rich bastard. His fortune has been amassed through the dumping of incredibly toxic chemicals on the sea’s bottom. To do this he’s got into bed with members of the government (not literally, he’s far too repulsive for that), and it’s this need to save their environment from this new poison that has brought the whales to action.

A cynical journalist, Kate Gunning, provides a rather unusual love interest and is a wonderful side-kick for our hero.

Ormond and Gunning team together. Their lives at risk all the while as they set about trying to work out just what is going on, focussing in part on a message from the sea that needs decoding.

It’s a great read.

The research involved goes beyond diligent, yet is placed subtly through the story.

Croft knows his onions as well as his fish. His knowledge and application of the craft, how to hook us and pull us in so that we can’t see what’s going on is sublime.

He does a wonderful job of unravelling his main players, stripping them of practically everything as they are tormented by their individual quests. Their depths are good and dark as you might expect; torches are provided to us as readers in the form of a deliciously playful humour that runs through the pages.

With the summer on its way, if you feel like taking a hugely enjoyable read, in terms of baggage allowance, you won’t find many books as engrossing on a purely gram for gram basis. Just don’t sit too close to the water, now, will you?

And, if you happen to be a film maker and you're reading this, the book is a must. It's the kind of book that would make a film to blow our socks off. Even better in these changing days, 3D would bring out aspects of it wonderfully. And if you happen to be Danny Boyle, I doubt they'd be able to hold you back - honest. Jaws with teeth.

Go to it.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A Handle On Names

A man came into our staff room the other day, a carpenter. Funny guy, not shy. Introduced himself as 'Chips', for that's how everyone knows him. His father was Chips and his brothers. When people came round to ask for one of them, you can imagine the confusion. He didn't say why he got his name, but denied it had anything to do with being a chippie.

Maybe he likes fish.

Nowadays, lots of people have taken on names that they weren't given to offer themselves a cloak to wear as they surf through tweets and blogs and game-sites. It makes sense. There are so many people in the world and so few names that, before you know it, when you're signing up for something by the time you get to BillSmith117, your ready to call yourself practically anything - even Bill Smith.

There are some great names out there. Some of my favourites on Twitter include the brother and sister combo 'CrimespreeJon' and 'LovingShiva', there's the lovely word play of 'ArtsCounsel' and the numbered JohnRob77 (the 77 refers to punk and is totally apt).

My own handle there is Amouseandaman. It was the first thing that popped into my head. The idea was that I'd be anonymous and that I wouldn't really check Twitter out much; wrong on both counts.

On this blog I'm nigelpbird. Saved going through the numbers and having to keep something new in the sieve some might call my brain.

After Birdy, I dabbled with Nigel Pig for a while. That's enough of that, right off.

Since the computer age caught up with me, booradley, swbird7, nigel.bird7, salvino, nigel.bird2, heygarland and another list I've forgotten have been my identies. No security risk, by the way folks, these were for signups ten years ago for sites that have long since bitten the dust. Like Birdy.

At school finding a name was easy. It was given to you and, before you knew it, it had been ever thus. The rule of thumb was take the surname and add a 'y' unless it had a 'y' at the end. If in doubt an 'o' would sometimes do the job. Wally, Jacko, Army, Payney, Coomby, Robbo and so on. And then there were Fat Mark and Bubble.

Me? Not too difficult. Birdy. Between the ages of 7 and 20, that's how I was known. Me and my brothers.

And who was Birdy? Nice guy. Skinhead/punk. Quiet. Occasionally explosive. A little bit rebellious. Not one to get into a fight with. Could be a tosser. The guy that lived on a boat.

So when do my school name start to slip?

I guess it's when I left my home-town. Couldn't introduce myrself as Birdy when I was meeting new folk, now, could I? It's just not done. Friends kept the name alive for a while, but even they couldn't hold on to it for ever. So now I'm Nigel.

Nigel. For goodness sake. Wouldn't you be looking for alternatives?

I'm Nige to those I know best. Nigel when I'm in trouble and at work. When I sign things online it's nige or nigel, an ee cummings thing about modesty is the slant I put on that and maybe I feel I only deserve to be lower-case for some of the time.

Birdy. Now there's a name with a ring to it. Juvenile maybe, but good. It's rooted in me. You say Birdy I know who you're talking about (as long as Ade and Geoff aren't in the room). I like the Charlie Parker link there and the fabulous book/film on identity and war-induced crisis. More than that, I know where I am with it.

I might reintroduce it to the world slowly but surely, see how I get along.

If that's how you find me signing one day, try responding with it. See how it feels. See it can catch on. See if I can post myself back to the days when my body didn't hurt unless I was fighting, pushing myself, drinking too much or ill.

Thanks for being here,

Nigel, aka Nige, aka nigel, aka nige, aka Nigel Pig, aka Birdy, aka birdy, aka amouseandaman, aka nigelpbird, aka nigel.bird7, aka heygarland, aka boo radley, swbirdn, aka Nigel Bird

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A Place 2 Be, A Place To Talk

The idea of childhood is a difficult thing to get a handle on. By the time we’re fully ready to reflect upon it, it’s sailed from our grasp. We can no longer fully understand what it’s like to be in a baby’s position, a toddler’s, a primary school child's and so on.

A long time ago, whilst training to be a teacher, I was given a wonderful piece of advice about the setting up of a classroom. It was suggested that once I’d arranged my room, set it to my taste and with consideration of every conceivable practical aspect, I should get into the middle of the room, kneel down and see how it looked then.
Losing a couple of feet at least gives you a child’s eye view and reminds you of the differences.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to spend my afternoon finding out about ‘The Place2Be’.
Initiatives in education come into our lives like raindrops in a storm– impossible to avoid and in huge quantity. The trick is to filter out those that have potential from those that clearly don’t.
‘The Place2Be’ seems to offer more potential than anything else I’ve seen for a while.
The concept is very simple - youngsters need looking after.
Our children come from a huge range of backgrounds and experiences. They’ll assimilate the world in very different ways. Some will thrive and some won’t.
As parents, we all get things wrong from time to time. It's impossible not to and stems from the imperfections we all carry. Finding the tightrope thin line between the best and worst ways to act is difficult. We can care too much or not enough, be too firm or too lax, employ the wrong instincts, come home after a difficult day and turn away, mess up on the work/life balance...the list is endless. It doesn't make us bad people, just human, but like all things, some of us will get things more wrong than others.

It’s not all fairy stories and happy endings out there as we know too well, and the darker characters of giants, ogres, witches, dragons and pantomime baddies lurk in abundance alongside the fairies, princes and princesses. We can find all of them inside ourselves. For some, the darker elements are easier to control. For others, well, sometimes the demons win out and sometimes those demons will shatter the young.

Many children arrive at school having been through experiences that would tax anyone.

Whatever it is, even at the level of missing breakfast again, or having stayed up too late to watch a movie containing super violence, a child who is not ready to learn is not going to find enjoying their school day easy.

Tag on literacy difficulties, dyscalculia, language issues etc, and school becomes a place of ambiguities – sanctuary on the one hand, overly-demanding and hostile on the other.

As our main role-models are provided within the family and as many of our experiences come from there also, a challenging home life may lead to challenging behaviours.

It's not enough to condemn young people for what they do, make them pariahs because of the way they act out. It's our duty to see it from all angles, to offer support and care and understanding. Sure, it's not easy to do, but do it we must.

‘Place2Be’ brings together committed professionals from therapeutic backgrounds and offers children and young people a chance to be themselves in a totally safe environment. They can build relationships in a trusted setting with their mentors and explore their feelings in a way that will relieve some of life’s pressures and repair some of the emotional damage that an adult world will inevitably cause at some level.

Individuals are offered regular support on a weekly basis for a whole year.

Others may take part in groups.

Some may receive short blocks of support and then move on.

But it’s not just a minority of pupils who can benefit. The whole school can access the programme in the form of its linked project, ‘Place2Talk’. By booking themselves in for a slot, any pupil can talk about their news – problems or successes – and get things off their chest.

Imagine that. What a fantastic proposition.

As impressive as the work done with the pupils is the work done with the staff. Working intensively with pupils with significant needs and issues can be physically and emotionally draining. I really appreciate the fact that the staff are debriefed after a day at the chalk-face, are encouraged to engage with therapy outside of work and are offered superb training opportunities.

I’m in awe of its possibilities just now. Within the current climate of discussion relating to standards and school improvements, surely this type of initiative is a must. I can’t see a better way to support the most vulnerable children we have within an educational set up and, if the Lib/Con government support such schemes with enthusiasm, they’ll go up at least one point in my book (still have a long way to get to zero, mind).

I really wish there’d been such a facility around when I was a child. I may not remember the whole thing, but I certainly recall incidents and anxieties that affected me then (as they still might now) from my schooldays.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

'Old Dogs' by Donna Moore

One Man's Opinion

Sometimes, when you read a book, you can sense the pleasure the author found in its writing and ‘Old Dogs’ certainly feels like one of those. To my mind, Donna Moore must have had a whale of a time putting this together.

It might not, however, have been as much fun for her as I imagined whilst I read. Given the structure of the story with its seamless flow from one passage to the next, the craft employed in engaging us with the characters and the action and the way she had me laughing, smiling and wincing through the book, there was probably a lot more sweat and a few more tears in the process than the end product suggests. Easy to read may not always mean easy to piece together.

The ‘Old Dogs’ of the title are a pair of jewel-encrusted, gold statues that are to be displayed in a Glasgow museum.

The exhibition has been put together by Megan, ex-curator of the museum and ex-lover of new curator Campbell Findlay. Seeking her revenge for her broken heart and her lost job, she stumbles into the opportunity of intercepting the statues upon their delivery and therefore humiliate said bastard. She can’t go and collect the objects as herself, of course, so she opts to wear her Dolly Parton costume without the fake boobs to the airport. With the museum pieces safely in her hands, she replaces them with ugly, concrete replicas that she made herself.

Meanwhile, ex-prostitutes and grifters Letty and Dora (a couple of very old dogs themselves) are busy employing staff to look after their incarnations as Signora Teodora Grisiola and La Contessa Letiziadi Ponzo. Having recently returned from a successful con in Australia, they are looking for one more job to help them ease into a retirement of boozing and biking.

Barry Sheehan is something of an old conman himself. He’s looking to get a job with the fake Italians as a chauffeur so that he can get in on their act. Fortunately for him, he is offered the work. Unfortunately, for a Rangers fan, he has to wear a uniform of green with gold trim.

Victor Stanislav is the Australian of indeterminate heritage who was humiliated by the sting of the old birds and is determined to get his revenge. A man of culture, he is also an ex-mercenary and ex-French Foreign Legionnaire. Until he hears of the golden dogs, he has only one thing on his mind - the utter destruction of Lette and Dora.

Raymie and Duncan are two of life’s unfortunates. They’re not blessed with a great deal other than the best lines in insults that could be imagined. Small-time crooks, they imagine opening up a pub and smoking beer-flavour fags from the money made form a museum heist.

Kyle is a young orphan who arrives in Glasgow to retrieve the dogs for the monastery from whence they came. His life has been spent on a small island, isolated from modernity and people. He is determined to succeed on his mission, learning all about robbery from a night watching crime-capers on TV.

It’s a big cast and Moore gives us a strong handle on each of them as their lives spin around the statues like out of control satellites.

Everyone converges on the museum on the same Saturday night to steal the dogs. From that point on, the lives of the characters are bound together for good.

The story unfolds from the point of view of these sets of characters, each of them high quality ingredients to this bubbly, explosive mix of a cocktail.

Told in short chunks from the point of view of the groups as mentioned, the passages flow naturally together whether in parallel, in opposition, when blended or overlapping. In this way Moore kept me engaged from start to finish. Echoes here of Bateman and ‘I Predict A Riot’.

There’s something old fashioned about the tale. It has a carefree-romping style which seems to come from another era, a golden age perhaps. This is best represented by our old ladies – they’ve seen it all, lived through tough times and change, they’re nostalgic and yet move through the decades with an easy acceptance. When they attend the races and have a flutter (on Two Way Split, no less), I wouldn’t have been surprised if one of these adorable Italian ladies had stood and bellowed ‘Move your bloomin’ arse’ in encouragement.

All the same, we are entirely working in modern times.

Moore has a delightful turn of phrase and, dare I say it, she swears more creatively than anyone I’ve come across. It’s as though she has a palette full of conventional abuse and a magic paintbrush with which she mixes them together to create something utterly unique and hilarious.

I’d like to make a special mention of Raymie and Dunc at this point. I loved all the characters, but these guys are worthy of another book to themselves. What a double act. They’re hot stuff. They use the funniest lines and their general stupidity is a joy to behold. Writing in dialect can rarely have been so engaging.

‘Old Dogs’ is a heist caper, a modern farce, an adventure, a Carry-On movie on acid. The twists and turns are impossible to predict and it is to her credit that no matter how ridiculous the sets of events might be she manages to make them seem entirely credible, in part because the motives of all those who inhabit the book are so deeply believable.

She’s clearly read a huge array of books and enjoyed a wide-range of movies in her time. More than that, she’s been able to take all of the influences and put them together in a way that is entirely fresh and very much of her own style.

A couple of points to get out of the way before I go.

I bought a copy of the book on the back of recommendations from Twitter and a number of blog reviews. I'm delighted I paid attention. If I'd been browsing in a bookshop and seen the cover I might have ignored it completely. It's not to my taste. 'Don't judge a book by its cover' has rarely seemed so appropriate.

With regard to the cover, I see that the book is to be published soon by 'Busted Flush' in the United States and that they have gone for an altogether different piece of artwork. I hope that in the same way that they've improved the way it looks, they'll give it a thorough proof-read and correct some of the mistakes. It's a small gripe, I know, but there are a large handful of errors in the production that should have been ironed out by someone at Max Crime. It shouldn't put anyone off buying their copy, but there are a few breaks in the author's fine flow that didn't need to be there.

Gripe over.

It's a terrific piece that's' easy to recommend.

‘Old Dogs’ should be winning a few prizes here and there as best of breed based on the sheer entertainment and hilarity it offers

Donna Moore? Yes please.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010


My favourite Block, without any shadow of a doubt is Lawrence. Has to be.

Writer's block. Now there's another thing. I'm not even sure where to put the apostrophe, that singular or plural thing utterly confusing.

I wonder what Matt Scudder would do.

In his earlier days he might have gone on the piss, got himself blind drunk and woken up the next day in pieces. Might even have forgotten what the problem was in the first place.

He could just sit with the problem, get on about the business of solving it whilst actively seeking other solutions.

The older, wiser man might well take it along to an AA meeting and talk it through with his sponsor. Find a path through the problem.

Closest I've ever come to and AA meeting was Gambler's Anonymous. I can still remember the first time. I was told some of the rules. It was explained that if I saw any celebrities I wasn't to breathe a word. That was wasted on me. I doubt I raised my gaze far from the floor. Still, they gave me a Standing O when I finished my bit, then moved on to some real difficult tales.

The second meeting, I was given Christmas cards and made to feel welcome. That was exactly what I didn't want. I decided there and then that if I had to go to meetings if I was going to gamble, that I'd just give the ponies (and the footie, gymnastics, golf, cricket etc) up for good.

That was five years ago now. I've only wavered once, on a day when I just had that feeling. Selected the names, popped into the bank and then to the bookies. I'd swear my hands were shaking as my mind formed arguments for and against. In the end, it didn't' matter. The machine was bust. I'd have to go back later.

'Somebody Up There Likes Me,' I figured and headed for home.

I checked later. 6 races, 6 losers. Reminded me of the good/bad old days.

So here I am in a similar turmoil.

I'm enjoying writing something about not writing. How twisted.

Of course, I'm writing. Going through the motions of hitting the keys, putting words together in my head and hoping they'll make sense to someone when I'm done.
What I'm not doing is sitting down to my novel (for a novel is what I'm calling it, whether it is or not is another matter).

Just before Easter I started to lose my discipline and my momentum. Maybe I'd been pushing too hard and burned myself out. Maybe I wasn't pushing hard enough.

Whatever it was, I ground to a halt.

I'm still halted.

I've had loads of excuses to take on:

once I started watching series 1 of The Wire, I couldn't manage anything else. It was a kind of research.

I wrote a couple of shorts for competitions that might raise my profile.

I set up a blog so I could enter one of said competitions.

I carried on with the blog because I'm enjoying it, seeing people pour in from all over the world.

I'm a working man and a father of three young children who need me around.

I'm tired.

I'm doubting myself.

There are tells we need to look out for. It'll be individual, but mine is when I take some school prep home and think of it as something I'd like to get my teeth into. That's when I know something's gone seriously wrong.

Truth is, I'm at a stage where the next chapter is the point to which I've been building. It's also the one from which the momentum for the second half will begin. It's important I get it right, and you know what, I'm not sure I can.

Rather than discover that the whole thing to now has been a waste of time because I can't pull it off, I don't go near it at all; better to teach well in the morning or write a little funny on Twitter than to do that.

Recently I read a piece of advice that suggested a writer on a roll should never keep going to the end so that it's easy to pick up the next time. I tried it and it worked, until there was no escape.

Of course it doesn't matter a fig to anyone else that I'm blocked. Who cares? I don't make any money from it, so my mortgage isn't in doubt (pity the blocked souls who are in that position) and when I do finish there's little chance it will see the light of day to make the people who live in my head just now come to life.

Matters to me though.

Matters more that I know the solution.

There's no point worrying that I can't keep enough in my head to become a novelist and should stick to short stories, even if that's the truth.

There's no point being scared of what I write because I can change it.

And there's only one solution.


Sit at my laptop and write.

Good job I'm not working on a detective novel, huh?

Sunday, 2 May 2010

The Library

What a brilliant concept. Almost as brilliant as the idea of free health care for all. Aren't we lucky?

I've been intending to write a blog about libraries since I started this a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it was because there may not be that many things that I can think of putting up that may be of interest to anyone out there.

I came across a piece on a blog today (Do You Write Under Your Own Name?) that stated a case for libraries in light of the forthcoming General Election. It says it better than I can, so I reckon you should just pop over there now and save yourself a few minutes:

I mentioned in my opinion of 'The Devil's Staircase' that I'd enjoyed my experience at the 'Crime In The City' series run by the Edinburgh libraries.

Why is such a set of events important? It allows us mere mortals to see and meet writers, brings groups of the like-minded together and gives a local community something to get out of their houses for. It's also important because at such events the writers actually get paid, therefore sustaining the people at the centre of the publishing process. I believe that at launch events writers are expected to turn up and do it for the glory only and the benefits it might have on book sales.

My kids go to the library often. They love books, though without libraries, we just wouldn't be able to feed their interest for new material. Picture books, after all, aren't cheap.

Izz, partner in crime, gets nearly all her books there. It amounts to several per week. She gets a great range. Those titles that they don't have are ordered for a minimal charge. It's amazing.

She's undoubtedly saved a tree or two in her time by now, and she's read more than me by a factor of which I'm not even going to guess at.

And the writers? Again they benefit. They may only get a very small (pennies) fee for each withdrawal. 'Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves' could read 'Look after the libraries..."

As if that wasn't enough, you can get free Internet access, reading groups, writing groups, art displays, literacy and numeracy support, schools' events, father/mother and toddler events (Bounce and Tickle for us), maps, advice, community events displays, help, company, warmth, tea and coffee...whoever came up with the idea, I'd like to shake their hand (post it up, if you know; save me a Google).

Our librarians even let my children use the staff toilet - needs must.

It is to my shame, then, that I'm not even a member of the library here. I've lived in the town for 6 years and have used my family's tickets whenever I've needed something. It's about time I got off my arse. Added my weight to the figures to make sure that the council understands the importance of the local library as a resource.

If I haven't done it by the end of next week, think assassination.

If you haven't, then that's what I'll be thinking of taking up.

And if you live outside of the UK (those who've come from Canada, Poland, the States, China, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Ireland, France, Cyprus, Italy, Argentina and more - I can't believe you made it, and I'd like to say thanks for coming) maybe you could let me know what the set up is for you.

Final point. I'm no expert and I haven't heard a word on the subject from politicians, but for my penny's worth I can't see the Tories maintaining any public services. You just know it. For goodness sake, vote for someone else.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Writing Competitions

There are a couple of excellent competitions out there that are coming to a close in 2 weeks.

Take a look at the crime comp at:

The prizes are online links and money ($100). You get to see the entries already posted at:

Only 12 entries so far (high quality, mind) - you do the maths. Free to enter.

Also free to enter, a comptetion with an outstanding prize.

Alibi are offering E-Book readers and a weeked at the Crimewriting book festival.

Free to enter.
The next one is small in terms of prize-money, but large in terms of status.

It's an invitational contest, which means you don't even get into the ring unless you can demonstrate something in your work that will move the judges. I like the idea.

Those in favour (ie those with good work, not those who are good mates) are entered into the hat and ten lucky folk get the chance to write a story on a yet-to-be specified theme.

Great idea.
I'll be happy just to get past the hat's brim.
Again, it's free to enter. What have you got to lose?

And if you like the idea of Bela Legosi's Dead, here's some Bauhaus: