Monday 30 March 2015


David Burns is a hard man of the old-fashioned variety. He believes there’s honour among thieves and has been the ruthless leader of Dundee’s underworld for many years.

In steps Craig Nairn, the new contender for the Burns’s crown. Nairn is growing arms and legs and when his tentacles reach into Burns’s turf, tensions soon grow out of hand.

Sandwiched in between them is private investigator McNee who is working as one of Burns’s henchmen while undercover for the police.

Cry Uncle is a story that is full of drama, action and tension. It’s a book that had me craving slots of spare time so that I could continue reading and I made sure that I carved out those slots wherever I could. The chapters are perfectly bite-sized to suit these purposes, satisfying the appetite for the book and keeping the pace and momentum high, yet never quite fully sate the appetite until the final pieces are put into place.

McNee is a terrific first-person narrator. His voice is compelling and he’s articulate enough to take us through the ins and outs of the plot with ease. We follow him through a series of events in which he is always weighing up his moral position and, more often than not, considering how he can survive in a world where his friends and enemies all seem to find him expendable. He offers glimpses into Dundee past and present that paint a very vivid picture. He also takes us through the landscape of his internal workings, which is like taking a walk along cliffs that are at once beautiful and treacherous. McNee has limits and also has the capacity to cross them; it’s a moral ambiguity that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I loved Cry Uncle (US) and urge you to check it out. It works on so many different levels that I’m sure it has a broad appeal. Those who like a thriller, a PI novel, a police story or a brutal gangland battle should be fully engaged. As a bonus there are great character studies, curve-balls and tender moments. There’s even an ending that has something about the Count Of Monte Cristo to it and that’s saying something.

Really great stuff. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

The Lost Carnival

Arthur Bird makes radio documentaries. Life is pretty normal for him until the day he receives a mysterious package. What is to come is a perplexing tale surrounding the leader of a lost carnival, Popou Ingenue, the finding of a Phoenix egg and an exotic trip to Morocco. 

Arthur is soon to find himself in a very difficult position, caught between two rival factions that both seek his attention.

Intrigue, humour and the fanciful come together, along with newspapers with missing articles and gun-toting broads. A little hammy and totally absorbing. 

Find the first three episodes of The Lost Carnival here

Friday 13 March 2015

Sleeps With The Fishes for your listening pleasure

Here's a story for you to listen to. It could be while you're doing the washing up or, if you'd rather, while you're doing the hoovering.

The production is by Bird On A Wire and is narrated by Geoff Bird.

Many thanks to Geoff for the support and the effort - such things are the acts of kindness that make the world a better place. 

If the video below won't work for you, please try the link to Soundcloud instead.

Thanks for listening.

Wednesday 11 March 2015


“Too bad my mother didn’t have a gun. I might have gotten to know her better.”

This one opens like a hurricane. Juliette’s a smoking a joint, idly playing with herself as she waits for a suitable victim to flash. Within a tiny space, the chaos of her early life and the darkness of her future are revealed. She’s hooked up with the love of her life, a diabetic alcoholic writer called Punch with whom she has a suicide pact. While they’re waiting for the date of their deaths, they’re supposed to be living life to the full, collecting stories for Punch’s novel. If she thinks it, she has to do it – that’s the rule. It’s like she’s a dice lady without the numbers.

In truth, the first chapter knocked me back onto my heels. I just wasn’t really ready to walk in on the situation. That disorientation was a feeling I really enjoyed and what I wanted was more.

As the early pages went by, I became a little worried that I might just be wandering through a series of interesting, well-written scenes that weren’t heading anywhere in particular. That sense soon disappeared as my emotional involvement grew quite sharply.

On one of their early adventures, the couple break into the Hemingway house at Key West and set to enjoying Hem’s space in every way they can. When a guard shows up and there’s an explosion of reflexive violence, Punch and Juliette worry that their crime will be uncovered.

Into her life walks a lesbian white witch called Isis. Isis brings a different kind of love to Juliette and adds a new dimension to the story. It allows Juliette’s vulnerability to come to the fore. In sharp contrast to Punch’s mean spells, Isis is full of warmth and concern. Crucial for me, it meant I no longer wanted the suicide pact to go ahead and shared Isis’s hope that there would be a way to get Juliette out of her way of thinking.

The criminal acts of Punch and Juliette become more intense. They’re exciting, tense and unsettling. As they work through their Bonnie and Clyde routine, the date of their death rushes at them (and rushed at me) at a startling pace. The end comes into view and even as the crash is about to happen, I had no idea how it was going to play out.

From that amazing opening, through those early uncertain chapters and into the meat of Punch and Juliette’s journey together, I was delighted and totally engaged with their world. I really enjoyed the writing style and the whole range of tensions, including the warmly erotic moments. Juliette’s highs and lows seem very real and those emotions seeped from the pages into my pores. I guess that’s what I want from a book – complete involvement and total immersion. A really great read.

Voluntary Madness (US) was re-released last month by New Pulp Press.

Sunday 8 March 2015


Chapter 1

The teletype ran hot through the night shift, spewing its litany of crimes from the precinct houses of Berlin for the detectives at the Alex.
At 00.21 a runner brought the latest to the Kripo squad room – Precinct 87, possible murder in a tenement.
Kriminalkommissar Trautmann and Kriminalassistant Roth took the call and Roth cursed their luck. Trautmann knew what the younger man was thinking.
Precinct 87 meant a small-time pimp or a KPD agitator; the odds of finding the culprit were long. They’d have to talk to Fleischer, see what the usual noses were picking up.
Trautmann sent the runner to requisition an auto and then run on a little further and inform the lab.
The kommissar expected a long night. Little did he know how long.

When they arrived on the scene they saw the 87th had sent a whole squad, some of the men outside going door to door under the flickering street lamps. Word from the Schupo on the tenement door was Kessler was running things inside.
‘Not any more,’ Trautmann said, tasting sweat on his lips from the warmth of the night air. ‘Where is he?’
‘One floor up,’ said the Schupo. He smoked a cigarette, raising it to his mouth with trembling fingers. It was unprofessional but he didn’t seem to care. He chugged the smoke without pause.
‘A whole squad?’ Roth said, as they passed into the dusty tenement hallway. ‘What the hell’s going on?’
The Schupo ignored the question, eyeing a Jew who passed by on the other side of the street. A couple of the uniformed officers stopped the man and began asking questions. Trautmann shifted his attention inside.
Scuffed blood droplets on the stairs and the squeak of heavy shoes on bare floorboards overhead told Trautmann to expect a mess. Sure enough, when they entered the brightly lit apartment there were far too many uniforms in there. A crime scene needed the rigour of a Bach prelude; this was more the chaos of a Stravinsky score.
Trautmann disliked Stravinsky. He disliked procedural laxity even more. He managed a glimpse of a body lying on a blood-soaked rug near the fireplace at the end of the room before calling for Kessler.
‘So they sent me the Mule,’ said Schupo-sergeant Kessler, coming through from a connecting room with his shako dangling from his left fist. Sweat dripped from him and made dark patches in the underarms of his uniform jacket. Trautmann itched to bring out a handkerchief and mop his own face.
As Kessler came nearer, he glanced at Roth: ‘I see you brought Admiral Nelson with you.’
Roth touched the stump where his right arm had once been.
‘That’s enough of that, Kessler,’ Trautmann said, pulling the sergeant’s gaze back to him. ‘I need you to clear this apartment. There are too many people in here.’
‘We’re trying to solve this one before word gets out.’
‘You don’t solve a crime by ruining the evidence,’ Roth said with a jerk of his pomaded head.
‘Roth,’ Trautmann warned.
Kessler just smiled.
‘What do you mean, before word gets out?’ Trautmann said.
‘Victim’s a brownshirt,’ Kessler said, scratching one of his chins. ‘You know as well as I do there’ll be reprisals by tomorrow lunchtime if we don’t make an arrest…’ 
‘Yeah, reprisals from who,’ Roth muttered.
‘…It’s a tinderbox out there.’ Kessler led them past the body to the next room, a bedroom. Then he waited for them to catch up. ‘The trail begins in here.’
The sheets on the bed were rumpled. A brass candlestick lay in a pool of drying blood on a patch of floor between the bed and a dresser, and there were red-brown speckles on the sheets and on the walls. A picture frame had toppled from the dresser into the blood; one corner of the frame was stained with it and the glass had cracked.
‘Reckon our boy came in and caught his woman with some other chap, leading to a struggle.’
Trautmann pulled a pair of rubber gloves from his pocket and pointed at the candlestick. ‘The murder weapon?’
Kessler laughed. ‘Slow up there, Mule. I’ve got more…’
Trautmann put on the gloves and picked up the picture frame, angling it to catch the light as Kessler rattled on.
‘…So there’s a fight in here, our boy with his woman, or the gentlemen caller, or maybe both…’
The photograph showed a young woman with dark hair and eyes and a beguiling smile.
‘…Our boy takes a nasty blow to the head that knocks him to the floor. There’s a corresponding mark on his right temple, as you’ll see. Then…’
Kessler paused and made them follow him back to where the body lay. Trautmann brought the picture frame along.
‘…at some point, two shots to the torso.’
‘A gun?’ Roth asked.
‘Well, I may just be a humble Schupo,’ Kessler said, ‘but I reckon I know a fatal gunshot wound when I see one.’
Trautmann looked down at the body, a young blond male dressed in the brown uniform of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung. Dead though he was, he still oozed blood onto the rug. ‘Anyone hear anything?’
‘Round here?’ Kessler made a face. ‘What do you think?’
‘I thought you had your ways,’ Roth said.
‘Now now, Admiral. No need to get jealous because we know how to get results.’
‘So what have you found out?’ Roth snapped. ‘Anything?’
‘Do we have the boy’s name?’ Trautmann cut in.
Kessler referred to a notebook. ‘Jan Meist, according to his landlady.’
‘Who is…?’
‘The old girl on the next landing up. And a real pleasure she is, too. I can’t wait for you to meet her.’
‘And the young woman here?’ Trautmann showed them the photograph. ‘She lived with him, I take it?’
‘That’s the best part.’ Kessler grinned. ‘You’ll never guess who she is. Fair gives us our killer straight out of the gate.’
‘You’re right,’ Trautmann said. ‘I won’t guess who she is. So why don’t you just tell me.’
‘Maria Fleischer.’
Trautmann looked at Roth and Roth looked at Trautmann.
‘She’s related to Fleischer?’ Trautmann said.
Kessler clapped his hands. ‘I know. Great, isn’t it? I can have my squad ready to pick him up as soon as the lab boys are done here.’
Roth clicked his tongue in disgust.
‘No, you don’t,’ Trautmann said. ‘Not without we’ve spoken to him first.’
‘Oh, come on, Mule!’ Kessler said. ‘What more do you want? Meist beats up his girl, makes her go out pros-pec-ting’ – he drew out the word – ‘to pay the rent. She tells her uncle, who comes and puts two bullets in him for her. Simple.’
‘Whoa, not so simple,’ Trautmann said. ‘Beats up his girl?’
‘Ask the landlady. She’s full of it. You’ll get all you need from her.’
‘And what about this man she was supposedly with when Meist came in here?’ Roth said. ‘Anyone see what happened to him?’ 
‘Who else but Fleischer would be able to get hold of a gun in this part of town?’ Kessler said.
‘Maybe they didn’t get the gun in this part of town,’ Roth said. ‘Maybe this gentleman caller was an army officer. Or a pol…’ He cut himself off and regarded the knot of uniformed patrolmen standing close by.
‘Or a what?’ Kessler said.
‘We can soon settle this,’ Trautmann said. ‘Do you have the gun?’
‘Sarge,’ bellowed a voice; a young Schupoman entered the apartment with a pistol in his hand. ‘We found it! In the drains outside.’
Trautmann couldn’t contain his anger. ‘Kessler! Tell me that man isn’t contaminating evidence!’
Kessler blushed.
‘That’s it!’ Trautmann shouted. ‘Everybody out – RIGHT NOW!’

 This extract has been taken from the novella Berlin Burning by Damien Seaman, published by Blasted Heath.

Friday 6 March 2015


Are stories just a symptom of human stupidity?

So, how are you feeling about Muslims right now?

Conflicted, I’ll bet.

Your head says it’s ridiculous to assume they’re all humourless maniacs ready to kill you at the slightest hint of disrespect for their religion. But your heart…

Well, your heart can’t help but feel a pang at every tabloid headline your head struggles to ignore.

And if you’re Muslim reading this – have you noticed people looking at you any differently in the last few months? Or perhaps you’re just resigned to the idea that most non-Muslims now see you as a potential terrorist.

What with the rise of Islamic State, beheadings of foreign captives, the recent murders in France, and now the whole Jihadi John brouhaha, you’d be forgiven for just sticking your head under the duvet and refusing to think about it.

Interestingly, recent(ish) scientific discoveries suggest that might be the best thing for you.

Because you hear that clanging sound in your mind?

That’s the clash of narratives you can hear.

The irresistible appeal of narrative

You see, it turns out the human mind is virtually incapable of seeing two events without trying to link them together, with one event as the cause and the second as the effect.

You can see it going on right now with the case of Jihadi John. Was he radicalised because of harassment by sinister British security services? Or was he radicalised by sinister religious nutters who want to destroy the West?

Who’s to say he was radicalised by either? Who’s to say he was radicalised at all?

In our rush to construct what is now fashionable for politicians and media types to call a “narrative” – what most of us know in everyday life as a “story” – we’re in serious danger of distorting the facts entirely.

For example, within a week of the Charlie Hebdo murders in France, many world leaders started spouting the whole “we’re at war” thing again. But at war with who – or what? Islam? Radicalised Islam? Individual Muslims? Or just some dumb murderers who were looking for validation, and sought it through religion?

And why were our political leaders so keen to jump on the “war on terror” bandwagon yet again? We’d do well to question their narrative. Unless, that is, it’s as blindingly obvious to you as it is to me that this whole Islamic distraction is a great excuse to squeeze more taxes out of us, bung the spooks a few more hundreds of millions to snoop on our online habits, and keep us in line while making us forget about all the other dodgy shit…

But perhaps I’ve let slip a little too much of my own narrative.

If I did, you can’t blame me. It’s all the fault of my primitive brain for not evolving quickly enough.

Learning… indoctrination… what’s the difference?

It’s quite common now to accept that stories are in many respects the best way for us to learn. Whether that’s learning empathy (or, of course, hate – thanks again, tabloid headlines) or a new skill. Whether it’s indoctrination into a specific way of looking at the world, or just because someone wants to sell you something (hello infomercials and party political broadcasts).

Perhaps I’m wrong on this, but it seems easy for us to accept that stories work because they tap into our emotions. They bypass the logical parts of our brains and make it easier for new information to stick.

Blah blah blah.

Actually, I think it’s more pathological than that. I don’t think stories are the best way for us to learn; I think they’re the only way we’re really capable of learning.

In fact, skip back up a couple of paragraphs and go over what I wrote. “Stories work because…” Cause and effect. I’m already guilty yet again of the very thing I’m half-arsedly deriding. And it’s all my brain’s fault!

God, this is infuriating… But let me explain what I’m trying to get at and perhaps you’ll see I do have a point somewhere in all this. Because your brain is almost certainly as flawed as mine when it comes to this unholy narrative addiction, so I promise you’ll get something good out of this if you stay with me to the end.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

In fact, let’s try another story to illustrate my point. This one comes from the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, which I recommend wholeheartedly…

“The ‘fact’ that [basketball] players occasionally acquire a hot hand is generally accepted by players, coaches, and fans. The inference is irresistible: a player sinks three or four baskets in a row and you cannot help forming the causal judgment that this player is now hot, with a temporarily increased propensity to score. Players on both teams adapt to this judgment – teammates are more likely to pass to the hot scorer and the defense is more likely to double-team. Analysis of thousands of sequences of shots led to a disappointing conclusion: there is no such thing as a hot hand in professional basketball… Of course some players are more accurate than others, but the sequence of successes and missed shots satisfies all tests of randomness. The hot hand is entirely in the eye of the beholders, who are consistently too quick to perceive order and causality in randomness. The hot hand is a massive and widespread cognitive illusion.”

And what was the public reaction to the news that this common belief was, in fact, a myth? Kahneman goes on to tell us…

“The finding was picked up by the press because of its surprising conclusion, and the general response was disbelief. When the celebrated coach of the Boston Celtics, Red Auerbach, heard of Gilovich and his study, he responded, ‘Who is this guy? So he makes a study. I couldn’t care less.’ The tendency to see patterns in randomness is overwhelming – certainly more impressive than a guy making a study.”

This tendency to see patterns is another way of describing what stories are. They help us to perceive and shape the world, which can be very useful to us. But they can also do great damage, because we see things that aren’t there – or refuse to see things that are there – to justify what we believe.

This must be why people can still question Darwin’s theory of evolution and argue – quite wrongly – that there is just as much evidence for the theory of intelligent design. Or why some people still obsess over discovering the identity of Jack the Ripper – as if it could possibly matter to anyone now.

Even more depressingly, it’s why there are otherwise-intelligent people who will seriously argue for the existence of ghosts. Or – worst of all – for the theory that aliens built the pyramids – or that they told we poor, retarded humans how to do it.

It’s why some people read Dan Brown. And it’s why others will maintain the moon landings were faked, or that 9/11 was the work of Mossad. Or any half-baked bullshit conspiracy you could choose to name. 

Oversimplified mush

Because this is how deeply patterns – stories – matter to us. Take them away from us, and we’re little lost children unable to cope with the existence of randomness.

Whether this is due to our centuries of religious training… or, more likely, because organised religion emerged from this need to give meaning to the random… it’s hard to say. I have my opinion, and I’m sure you have yours.

The more important question is what we do with this knowledge that most of what we know is oversimplified mush – the mental equivalent of baby food.

Are stories good for us as a species? Or do they just hold us back from understanding the world as it really is?

And yes, before you ask, this does matter.

Is the film “300” just a fun, stylised action flick, for example? Or is it racist and homophobic dross that can influence how we feel about Eastern cultures for the worse?

Does the film “Taken” encourage us to look upon swarthy people from the East as heartless white slavers who deserve nothing more than a bullet in the head?

I could go on, but I see my narrative is peeking out again.

So let’s return to the idea I started with. How many Muslims murdering in the name of their religion does it take to inspire widespread prejudice and repression against their innocent co-religionists? (Or, indeed, innocent non-believers from the same cultural background. They don’t all believe in God, and it’s patronising to assume otherwise.)

Conversely, how many botched Western military interventions does it take for the citizens of non-Western nations to see us as hypocritical bullies?

Indeed, one should probably ask how many botched Western military interventions it takes before we start wondering what we pay our taxes for.

But then, my brain is too primitive to cope with all this endless confusion. I’m off to stick my head under the duvet.

If you’ve any sense, you’ll do likewise.

Oh, but if you wanted a conclusion, here it is.

Stories are fun and stories are entertaining. But stories are only useful when they teach us something we don’t know or challenge what we thought we knew.

You’ll know which narratives you disagree with. That’s easy. The trick is to recognise which ones you agree with – because they’re the dangerous ones, as far as you’re concerned.

After all, it’s just as disrespectful to dismiss someone out of hand for their religious belief as their atheism. And it’s just as dangerous to dismiss an argument as racist as it is to propagate racist beliefs. All narratives rest on assumptions, and all assumptions can be flawed. So they must be tested.

Always test your assumptions. Always consider your opponent’s point of view.

And, whatever you do, never ever read the newspapers. Except for pure entertainment.

With that, I really am off to bed.

But do wake me up if they finally prove the identity of Jack the Ripper, won’t you?

If this has your juices flowing, check out David's earlier posts from the week:

The Sea Minor Interview

The Night James Ellroy Was Eyeing Up My Girlfriend... 

On Reading, Writing and Free Speech

And if you'd like to hear some of David's own stories, check out The Killing Of Emma Gross (US)or Berlin Burning (US). Take them in either order, that's not an issue. You might thank me if you do.
If you're still not sure, come back on Sunday to read a sample from Berlin Berlin; that ought to swing you one way or t'other.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

On reading, writing and free speech

by Damien Seaman

Have you ever blasphemed?

I ask because it seems important in light of the recent Charlie Hebdo murders, already fast fading from memory.

Also because late last year I managed to offend more than a dozen religious believers without meaning to.

I’m sure I can’t be alone in this. These days committing the “sin” of blasphemy appears to be getting easier. I certainly hadn’t expected a largely innocuous email to cause such a storm…
It was the second week of my new job at a publishing firm. Little did I know I was about to make my reputation in the most unexpected of ways. All I’d wanted to do was write an email that snagged some sales.

I’d written the first draft. Fairly dull stuff it was too, about hidden charges in the financial industry. It had a decent mix of fact and mild outrage at how much regular investors were being taken for a ride. But it was still lacking something, I thought. Something to make readers really sit up and take notice.

So I added the soon-to-be-offending word and out the email went.

Three days later my plucky little missive had received more complaints than any previous email in the company’s history!

Now, I’d known the email subject header might cause a stir. After all, I wrote it with just that in mind.

You see, I’d taken the so-so headline: How much are they ripping us off? and changed it to:
Christ! How much are they ripping us off?

I’d expected some readers to object on the basis of its mild swearing. Amazingly, however – to me at least – the complainants were offended specifically on the basis of their Christian faith.

“You wouldn’t say this about Mohammed!”

And lo, as with the satirists at Charlie Hebdo, I too had blasphemed. I really hadn’t meant to. It honestly never occurred to me that anyone would take what I wrote – a common usage of “Christ!” as an expression of anger or frustration in everyday British speech – literally.

“You wouldn’t say that sort of thing about Mohammed,” one of them wrote.

Well no sir, of course I wouldn’t. There is no common equivalent British expression that calls upon the prophet. Although, since the Koran recognises Jesus as a lesser prophet, presumably my email would have annoyed devout Muslim readers also. 

Now, I didn’t get in trouble for this, I should add. No armed men turned up at my office to shoot me. I didn’t even get a stern telling off from the publisher. This is no doubt because, as well as a record number of complaints, I also got a record number of sales. (Mammon trumps Jehovah, thank God.)

So, another small similarity with Charlie Hebdo – causing offence is good for sales. Note this point, as we’ll return to it shortly.  

Even so, my employers frantically instituted a de facto anti-blasphemy policy in the legal department. Now not the merest hint of Christian defamation is allowed to go public.

The right to cause offence – is it under threat?

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a shame. After all, I don’t work for the government. I don’t work for a charity. I don’t work for a political party.

I work for a private company whose only mandate is to make money – albeit ethically. Why that means having to run scared from people who still think that God magically impregnated an illiterate virgin so she could give birth to his son, I don’t know.

But it does betray a very important point about the reality of free speech in our society. 

Looking at the Charlie Hebdo case for a moment, you’ve no doubt read several opinion pieces about the shootings.

These fall broadly into two camps:

1.       that it is never right to kill anyone for expressing themselves, however much they have offended you;

2.       that the Charlie Hebdo crew abused their right of free speech to go too far in upsetting Muslims, and they reaped their reward.

This is my reading of the most common arguments, and I think they miss the point.

Both of these opposing camps are really discussing the question not of the right to free speech, but of the right to give offence.  

If you think about it for a moment, two facts should become perfectly obvious. The first is that genuine free speech must include the right to offend – otherwise it cannot be called free. The second is that true free speech must also allow for people to be offended, and to say so.
So far, so good. The real challenge lies in how we respond to these facts. Just because you can offend, it doesn’t follow that you should. But the Charlie Hebdo crew had a pretty clear case for causing offence.

They’d been threatened before for making fun of Islam – both with death and with legal sanction. For the magazine to have any meaning as a satirical publication – or as a bastion of free speech – they were honour bound to continue. Because they stood for free speech, they therefore had a duty to satirise and offend those who by their actions had proved they did not.

The response they chose – to carry on – was really the only tenable one under the circumstances.

But in general, how should we respond if we give offence? Well, feel free to disagree, but I believe the only true response is to apologise for having given offence, but not for what you actually said. Not if you really believe in it. If you back down, you self-censor, and it’s in this way that free speech becomes eroded.

Or to put it in terms of an admittedly over-used axiom: unless you stand for something, you stand for nothing. Free speech only has meaning if you have something to speak about. 

Otherwise it remains purely theoretical.

Does this mean I support the right of racists to their opinions? Or of anti-abortionists to picket clinics? Or homophobes to oppose gay marriage?

Yes, of course. I disagree profoundly with all three of these groups. But I cannot force anyone to my way of thinking: that in itself would render speech unfree.

But should one racist beat up someone of another race…. Or an anti-abortionist attack a doctor… Or a homophobic parent verbally abuse their gay child… Well I can’t stand for that. And nor should any of us. Including – I would hope, perhaps naively – the majority of homophobes, anti-abortionists or racists who would not stoop to such violence.

Money talks – so let’s use that to our advantage

We can all take a stand on the things we believe. In fact, if we truly care about our freedoms, we must do so. Happily, even as readers we can have an impact – and a powerful one.
It cannot escape our notice that one key reason why Charlie Hebdo kept on satirizing Islam was that this was good for sales. You’ll remember this was one of the main reasons I was never reprimanded for my blasphemy, either.

So I think it’s safe to say that money talks where free speech is concerned. And if we accept this is so, then surely we must support free expression by buying controversial books. If you’re an atheist or humanist, you could do worse than picking up a copy of a book by Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens. Or perhaps you want to learn more about Islam, or dig into the roots of Christianity. If so, then do it. Trump your normal reading habits and challenge yourself.

Some of my most exciting reading experiences have come from authors with whose world views I disagreed. I’m sure you’ve found the same. Not only does this help us grow. It also sends a signal to booksellers to keep these books in stock, thus ensuring that more and more readers can, in time, be exposed to them.

If you write, then don’t shy away from your beliefs either. You don’t have to write a polemic. Just refuse to censor yourself. Let your opinions and your beliefs come through in your writing.

If your beliefs are honest and heartfelt, readers will respond.

Some will respond negatively. You just have to be ready for that.

Oh, and one more thing…

Although we must accept the right for others to express beliefs we find upsetting, this doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to challenge them. In Britain we can be a little too hesitant in doing this. But let me give you an example of how it can work.

When I worked in a factory making Indian ready meals for a well-known supermarket chain, I got to know a very funny, friendly and outgoing Lithuanian. He was an intelligent guy by most measures, a trained lawyer whose qualifications sadly counted for nothing in the UK because of the different legal systems. And so he had to make ends meet by working in a factory, as many newish migrant workers must.

“Hang on – what the hell did you just say?”

Now, I said “sadly” he couldn’t practice law in Britain. And on the surface I’m sure you would agree that seems unfair. Hold on a moment, though, as there’s more.

Most everyone liked this guy, whose name I won’t repeat here. But one day, while we were cleaning down a production line together – and I can’t for the life of me recall how this subject was first raised – he suddenly said: “I can understand why Hitler did what he did about the Jews.”

I remember the line almost word for word, even though this happened more than four years ago, because of how much it shocked me.

“What did you say?” I ventured.

What followed was the most virulent anti-Semitic tirade I’d ever heard outside of my research for my historical novels (or in the comments section of certain broadsheets’ websites when the issue of Israel is mentioned, but that’s another story).

In vain did I argue with him. Nothing I said could change his mind. Somewhere in life, he’d decided the Jews were bad and deserved what they got during the Second World War. And that was that.

At a stroke, I became glad he was unable to practice law.

As I said, his views disgusted me. I find I must uphold his right to have them, and even to express them. But I have just as much right to be offended and to argue with him about why he is wrong.

Did I change his mind? No.

Did he change mine? No.

Was there any point to doing it?

You could argue that there wasn’t. But at the end of our somewhat heated discussion each of us at least knew where the other stood, and knew not to bring the subject up again unless we were ready for more verbal fisticuffs.

I’m disappointed I couldn’t convince him that he was wrong. But I was able to show him that there are people out there who disagree with him. And that really is the point. We disagreed and we argued – but we each spoke freely and never once resorted to violence. Nor did we come anywhere close.

While some people in the world think it is ok to bring AK47s to a debate, there will always remain some apprehension about the right to free expression. But that is why those of who care about this issue have a duty to act accordingly. Not just in how we respond to those around us, but also when it comes to what we choose to buy, to read, and to write. 

Damien Seaman in the author of The Killing Of Emma Gross (US) and Berlin Burning (US)

Sunday 1 March 2015

The night James Ellroy was eyeing up my girlfriend…

by Damien Seaman

You’re familiar, I take it, with that horrendous cliché about never meeting your heroes?

Well I wouldn’t for one second presume to tell you whether or not you should. It’s entirely up to you.

Though here’s what happened to me when I met my favourite author. Learn from it such lessons as please you.

Ellroy has long been my favourite crime writer – principally for his well-known LA Quartet, which I’d recommend to anyone with a taste for good, dense prose and even denser plotting. Granted, to be entirely honest I’ve always found “LA Confidential” does sag in the middle. But the rest of the book more than makes up for that – and I don’t think there’s an ounce of spare fat on any other of the other three in the series.

So it turned out Ellroy was in town – London town that is – for One Night Only to plug his most recent work, “Perfidia”.

How did I find this out? Through a lovely romantic gesture from my girlfriend, who had discovered this and booked us tickets for Ellroy’s only promotional talk anywhere in the UK. Or, at least, that’s what the promotional material said, though I believe he did end up doing a few more talks at other venues afterwards.

Still, that’s ok. Just the usual marketing enthusiasm for unkeepable promises. Needless to say, I was excited at the prospect of meeting my hero. But then something strange happened.

With the daily grind of getting to grips with a new job, I kinda… just forgot about the whole Ellroy thing.

I didn’t prepare, is what I’m trying to say. Which is maybe why it went off the way it did.

Anyway, picture the scene. There we are, my girlfriend, me, and maybe 60 or 70 assorted hipsters and liberals, after a busy day at work, taking our seats for an evening of being growled at.

“I hate hipsters, I hate liberals, I hate rock’n’rollers, I hate the counter-culture, I hate movie people.”

This was the Ellroy quote the advertisers went with before the event, adding, “So as long as you don’t fit into any of those categories, we’ll see you there”… And then going on to hold the talk at one of the most achingly-hip hipster hangouts in London. I mean, it was in Shoreditch, for Christ’s sake.

I mention this because context is everything.  

And important to see why it was so funny when, at one point during his talk, Ellroy exclaimed that Britain and the US should have pressed on after the fall of Berlin in 1945 and invaded the Soviet Union to kick out Joseph Stalin. You could practically hear the sound of contracting sphincters around the room; this sort of anti-leftist talk is still discomforting for the hipster liberal.

But, no matter. It amused some of us in the room. Here, in no particular order, is a quick run- down of his other show-stopping statements on the night:

1.       Growing up, Ellroy had a (very much sexual) thing for high-cheekboned British actresses of the 60s – think Julie Christie and the like. This had led both to an appreciation for the gritty ‘kitchen-sink’ social realist British dramas of the time and a lifelong desire for a British girlfriend…. And I am happy to tell you he has recently furnished himself with an example of the latter. He reported himself happy, and threatened to spend more time in London as a result. Our motley crowd of liberal hipster rock’n’rollers beamed with regional pride.

2.       He proclaimed the women in the crowd to be “porn widows”. Young men these days are obsessed with online pornography, he announced with the confidence of a Daily Mail op ed column. As a result, we are neglecting our significant others, leaving them bereft of true, manly love.

3.       Once he’s finished writing the “second LA quartet”, of which new book “Perfidia” is the first instalment, he’s toying with the idea of tackling an espionage thriller. This was what brought on the “we should have stuck it to Uncle Joe back in the 40s” talk that had made so many of us uncomfortable.

4.       He apparently makes quite a lot of money writing pilot TV episodes and movie scripts that have never reached the screen – and are unlikely ever to do so. Despite his cache as the liberal hipster’s novelist of choice. An odd situation, but one he seemed cheerfully resigned to. Or as cheerful as Ellroy ever gets, anyway. On anyone else it would have looked like annoyance, but I think he found it amusing.

5.       Ellroy claims to know nothing of contemporary politics or the news. He watches no television, dislikes the internet, and spends all of his time immersed in the literature and music of the time and place he’s writing about. “I could tell you everything about politics in LA and the United States of America in the early 1940s,” he said, “but virtually nothing about what’s going on in the world today.”

Having thus fulfilled his unspoken contract to provide arresting copy for the magazine writer who was interviewing him, we moved on to book signing.

Aha, I thought, this is my chance to shake hands with my hero. Ellroy walked to the back of the room, casting a sly glance at my girlfriend as he did so.

Briefly, I wondered if he thought her to be a high-cheekboned British actress of some sort. (Yes on the cheek bones, no to the other two.)

Finally, having hung back a little, she and I went to what was more-or-less the back of the signing queue. And we waited. And waited.

The line grew slowly shorter. She grew more and more bored. I wrestled with what I was going to say to my literary idol of a decade or more.

Should I tell him how much I loved his work?

Hmmn – a bit starry-eyed.

What about how he helped inspire me to start writing my own books?

Ugh – too crass.

What areas of London would he be hanging around in now he had a girlfriend here?

God – too stalkerish.

Turned out this was more difficult than I thought it would be. Bloody hell – why hadn’t I thought about this beforehand?

It hadn’t been like this five or so years ago when I met Dirk Benedict outside the theatre in Peterborough where I was due to watch him perform as Columbo. Oh no, then the conversation had flowed like wine – and this was a man who’d been a hero for a hell of a lot longer than Ellroy. More profoundly so, since he was my childhood idol from the A-Team – not to mention the original Battlestar Galactica.

Perhaps the ease of this early hero-meeting had given me a false sense of security. Or maybe it was just different because that meeting had been unplanned, and hence no preparation had been possible.

Well, whatever the reason, as my meeting with Ellroy approached I was floundering. And the queue just kept on shortening.

What would I say?

In the end, it was fine but disappointing. Ellroy gestured towards the kinship he and I shared over being bald. I proffered a weak joke about how I’d started shaving my head to look like him.

Didn’t matter really. At that point he had eyes only for my bored girlfriend.

Was I just intimidated by him? Was he overly smitten by my comely companion?

Ah, who knows. Who cares, really. All I can say for sure is that neither he nor I managed to display the laid-back elan of Dirk Benedict on a sunny summer evening in a town you’ve probably never even heard of (though it does boast a cathedral said to be one of England’s finest).

Now all I have to show for my evening with James Ellroy are some awkward memories and my signed hardback of “Perfidia”.

No personal message. Just my name and a random squiggle that could belong to anyone.

   Damien Seaman is the author of the novella Berlin Burning (US)and novel The Killing Of Emma Gross  (US)