Thursday 20 November 2014

London Calling (the squaring of a circle)


In about half an hour, I’m going to be tuning in to BBC Radio 4 to listen to my brother’s latest production. This one’s likely to be a cracker, not least because Geoff made it. It’s on Jack London and that, somehow, brings things full circle for me. You’ll be able to listen to the programme, London Calling, if you have access to BBC iPlayer right here.

Jack London’s a special character. I’ll not take that any further. You either know that or you’ll find out by listening. He’s important to me because of White Fang. That was the book that probably hooked me in to fiction more than any other in my formative years at primary school. It left its mark on me to the point where I had to write my own book about dog-fighting, which I did. Smoke was the result. It goes without saying that London did it better and that many others have done too, but it does explain something about my inspiration for that particular novella.

It’s also slightly eerie for me that Tobias Wolff (I’m sure there was no pun intended) will be part of it. I saw Mr Wolff (again, no pun) when he came to London to publicise his latest at the time, In Pharaoh’s Army. I’ve looked up the book and see that it came out in 1995 – how time flies – and have a signed copy on my shelf in front of me.

Why all this seems more significant just now relates to the recent release of my own latest novel, Southsiders. I’m very proud that it’s been published by Blasted Heath and am even happier with the content as I believe it could me by finest work to date.

The roots of Southsiders go right back to Geoff once more.
Our links together in the world of books and writing go back many years. Geoff’s a talented man who has a Masters in literature to top off his first class degree. He’s forged ahead down many paths in his time and has always made a success of what he’s done. One of the things that we did together was create The Rue Bella magazine back in 1998. It was a great publication that grew and improved right until its end in 2003. The magazine served two purposes to me. Firstly, it allowed me to feel like I was doing the right thing for once; that working with writers, putting out their work and writing my own material was what I was born to. Secondly, it meant that Geoff and I had a joint project that helped keep us together even though there were many physical miles between us.

When The Rue Bella finally ended (we just couldn’t afford to keep losing money on it – who buys poetry these days, huh?) there was a definite void in my life. I filled it by writing. I’m not sure Geoff had the same void, but he had children to look after by then so we were heading in different directions.

That sense of us moving apart has never really shifted. It’s probably just a natural process in life and I have to get used to that. I can’t blame Geoff, either. It can’t be easy having an older brother who has mental health problems that go far deeper than depression and who stumbles from one manic crisis to another as if blindfolded. It can’t have been easy.

Anyway, back to Southsiders.  

Three or four years ago, I had an idea that might help us to close some of the gap between us. I thought that we should do some collaborative writing. I had a selfish motive here and an unselfish one. I wanted to bring us together, but I also wanted Geoff to work on his fiction. If he chose to focus upon it, he’d be far better at writing than I, no doubt about it. 

We intended to work on two projects, one his idea and one mine. We’d write a chapter of each and pass it over for the next chapter to be written like a tag team.

Geoff had been working with war-veterans for a programme on BBC 5 Live (I think). He had the idea or writing about the return of a soldier from the war from his daughter’s perspective. The guy had a metal plate in his head and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride for his family.

My idea was that a young lad would be left alone at home because his parents had chosen to go their separate ways on the same day without telling each other. The kid was to be into Elvis Presley and was going to have one hell of an adventure.

Neither project came to anything. The gap was just too big. 
Whatever was getting in the way was also blocking our writing and we just couldn’t agree in the directions either piece should take. 
The momentum slowed and eventually the stories ground to a halt.

Thankfully, though, nothing in writing is entirely wasted.
I picked up the threads to Southsiders again earlier this year. It was easy to write – the voice caught me from the off. It bears no resemblance to the original joint effort, bar the idea and Elvis. It’s turned into what I’d describe as a dark version of Home Alone.

In the end, today’s programme seems to bring things to full circle. 
Lots of things coming together and tied up with a silky bow.

Looking at it, we’ve both gone along with paths we chose.

I write. I have to. It’s just a huge part of what I do.

Geoff, well he makes just about the finest radio programmes that 
the BBC put out. Literature is usually at the centre of his work, though he touches on all creative areas in his work.

I guess that’s just the way it is. It turned out pretty well in the end.

If you’re not convinced by any of this, have a listen in to the programme. As I come to the end of this, it’s 9 minutes away. I can’t wait. 

(for more on Southsiders, check out my interview at Crime Fiction Lover from earlier this week)

Also, please note and be very excited about the new Ray Banks, Angels Of The North which is now available for pre-order.


  1. What a great premise for Southsiders - is there any chance of getting Pablo D'Stair to publish the book in print? I still haven't really come around to e-readers yet. And nice to see you were able to successfully salvage an old project. I wish I could say the same for most of my early writing.

    I'm glad to hear you're a big fan of White Fang as well. The book really moved me as a youngster, and re-reading it a few years ago with my daughter delighted me to realize it hadn't lost any of its power over the years. (Which is more than I can say for a lot of the books I devoured in my youth. Including, surprisingly enough, The Call of the Wild.) The opening chapters - with the two dog-mushers on the tundra getting slowly getting hemmed in by the pack of wolves - are some of the most riveting scenes I've ever read.

  2. With you all the way. I'll see what I can do about a paperback - it certainly might be possible. I look forward to reading those books to my kids one day in the not too distant future.