Blog Tour

Well, thanks Iain! After more than half a century trying, I’ve evidently managed to convince someone that I really am a writer – else why would the excellent Iain Maloney have nominated me for one of the next links in the blog chain?

And – oh look! Before I’ve even started here is a tempting digression lying by the wayside just waiting for me to pick it up! For doesn’t one forge links? And isn’t the ambiguity lurking in that one small word just crying out for someone to exploit the pun?

But, no – I will resist! Puns are all, without exception, snares and delusions. So I shall stick to just one kind of forgery forging.

So – to the questions. Let’s be properly focused and task-oriented about this thing.

What am I working on?

Oh dear. Perhaps I should have stuck to the forging of links. You see, I’m not sure I can truthfully claim to be working at anything just at the moment. Just thinkingabout working. (Wasn’t it that excellent and neglected Victorian humorist, Jerome K. Jerome, who professed an enormous fondness for work? “It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.) Well, I’m with J K J on that subject: I’m much, much better at thinking about work than actually doing it.

Enough facetiousness – for the moment, anyway. The work that I’m busy thinking about at the moment is book three of a trilogy that I always think of as the Tam books. Tam Goatland (to give him his full name) is, or probably was – his historicity is most uncertain – a boy who dwelt under the shade of an enormous and impassable mountain, minding his father’s goats. And the very impassability of that mountain draws him to it. What lies on the other side? The question all adolescents must ask themselves. So Tam Book One is “The Boy and the Mountain”, started in the late 1970’s, laid aside, and completed in 2013. How’s that for a breathless pace of work.

Having finished Book One (it’s on Kindle now) I set about Book Two, the start of which had been waiting for my further attention for more than 30 years – and finished it while on holiday last year. (Writing on Holiday? Of course! See my answer to the last question on the list!)

And since Tam Book Two (titled “The Boy among the Islands”) doesn’t end, so much as pause for breath, there must be a third book, mustn’t there?

So, if I can be said to be working, that’s what I’m working on – what happens next to Tam Goatland. Lots of ideas, but somehow no single thread that I can quite get hold of and reel in.

Perhaps I’ll have to wait another 30 years? I do hope not!

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

The problem, of course, is that wretched word, “genre”. I mean, I know what it means when applied to SF, or Historical Fiction, or Romance – any of those straitened railway tracks that much commercial fiction seems to need to run on. But most writing simply is not “genre” writing. I note the tendency for the blanket term “literary fiction” to step into the breach here – but I’m not really happy with that, either. It seems to me redolent with the kind of hubris a writer would do well to avoid. After all, would, say Dickens, ever have described his yarns as “literary”? I think not.
Ask me what kind of writing I engage with, and what’s distinctive about it, and I’ll have a crack at an answer.

So. As may already have been inferred, some of what I write is addressed primarily to young readers – adolescents/ young adults. The trilogy is set in a fictional world, set somewhere in the past, and wound around with the cords of an ancient mythology. Within those constraints, it is – I suppose – a kind of adventure fiction. It’s also a proxy for life’s big (awfully big) adventure, aka “growing up”. Whether that makes it different from any other adventure story, I don’t think I’m qualified to say. It’s just an adventure that grew from a single question (What’s on the other side of the Mountain?) and never set out to be other than sui generis.

It is, however, totally different from my other two published novels, “The Edge of Things” and “Slow Furies”, neither of which is in any way an adventure. The first is an exploration of the life of a young man whose life is lived on the margins of a society that has largely rejected him: the second is what happens when a lonely young widow delves a little too deeply into the affairs of her secretive neighbor.

Ah – genre, wasn’t it? That I was supposed to be exploring? Well, if you liked to, you could call the Tam books, “Adventure”, The Edge of Things “A Love Story”, and Slow Furies “A Ghost Story”. But none of those train lines would lead you to the kind of destination you might have expected.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I want to. Is that a sufficient answer? No? Ah well, I thought not.

Well, I cannot remember a time when I did not want to write, and I have a suitcase somewhere stuffed full of typescripts (ah, the dear, dead days of the old Olympia portable, before word processing allowed you to re-write even before you’d finished writing!) that will never see the light of day. At university I thought I was a poet – and then poetry began to seem too easy (so I guess it couldn’t have been very good) and I wondered whether I could actually write a whole novel.

And it turned out, I could!

So where does subject matter come from? Well, the Tam books I guess I owe to my trade as an English teacher, searching for congenial literature for often bored young adolescents. The late 60’s and early 70’s were a golden era for writers of fiction for such an audience, and I guess I just felt I also needed to give it a try. Edward Blishen – long dead and sorely missed – must take some blame too. In the 70’s he was commissioned by Piccolo (Pan books’ juvenile arm) to produce a series of re-writes of adventure classics – the Piccolo Adventure Library. They were none of them to be longer than 20,000 words, and all to be illustrated by the excellent cartoon graphics of Tom Barling. He’d already illustrated a version of King Solomon’s Mines, when Edward decided the text wasn’t as good as the illustrations and (to my astonishment) asked me to have a crack at it. In the end I re-wrote three titles (King Solomon’s Mines, Last of the Mohicans, and A Tale of Two Cities) and in doing so I learned an enormous amount about the art of writing.

The Edge of Things had a different Genesis. As Head of a large Comprehensive, I would often find that seriously troubled youngsters would end up in my study – if for no other reason than that it avoided having to exclude them and allowed other kids to get on with lessons. So was born Eldon, the central figure of the book – and Elly. Neither was based on an actual person, but each was informed by the corrosive troubles that were daily presented to me, and fictionalizing them helped me work with them. I hope.

And Slow Furies? Well, I just fell to wondering what mysterious lives were lived behind the huge and private gates that line the village road where I lived – and then Alice arrived spontaneously in my head and acted like a crystal around which the story grew.

So, no one answer.

How does my writing process work?

Well, several months/years contemplating a story and rolling it around in my head – followed by intense bursts of writing. I write very quickly when I start: it’s starting that’s the problem. Take Tam Book Two (The Boy among the Islands) for example. Started it in the 70’s, couldn’t see where it was going, became a busy professional teacher, father, husband, and forgot about it. Rediscovered it in 2013 and completed it while sitting on an astonishing balcony overlooking a tropical paradise on La Palma, with the whole of the wide Atlantic spreading out to the west. Astonishing sunsets. I think it took some ten evenings of intensive writing.

And that’s always been my pattern. Long periods of indolence creative contemplation followed by short and incandescent bursts of activity.

You see, at heart I am a very lazy person.

So – there you have it. The next name on the Blog tour is Steve Ely. Steve worked with me in Barnsley just before I retired, some 14 years ago, and I’m sure you will agree that he’s a much more serious and impressive contributor than I. His poetry is deeply rooted in the geography and history of his area, and his novel, Ratmen, taught me more than I needed to know about rodent life!

Here is his own introduction to himself:

Steve Ely is a writer from Yorkshire.  His novel, Ratmen, is published by Blackheath Books.  His book of poetry, Oswald's Book of Hours is published by Smokestack Books and was nominated for the Forward Prize for best first collection in 2013.  Smokestack will publish his second book of poetry, Englaland, in 2015.  He's just completed a biographical work about Ted Hughes's neglected South Yorkshire period - Made in Mexborough.'


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A Vendre

We’ve been over in France for a couple of weeks now, enjoying a gallic interlude, catching up with our good French neighbours, and trying to work out which of our local restaurants has survived the fairly bitter economic downturn here. We’re a bit worried about La Maison des Amis de la Foret, next door to us, because their doors haven’t opened since Sunday. Do hope they’ve not fallen victim to the wretched economy.

In fact there are only two topics of conversation over here at the moment – the weather and the economy. And neither is cheerful. As the UK economy shudders into first gear and begins the steep climb out of recession, it’s hard to see the evidence all around us of a French economy that has a steeper hill to climb, and has yet to start moving. You can’t live half your life, as we do, in rural France without caring deeply about the depressed state of things.

One tell-tale sign of woe has been the rash of A Vendre signs that has sprouted alongside every road. It’s nothing new, of course, to see houses for sale here – unlike in the UK, they have many more houses than people to occupy them and it’s not unusual for property to sit dolefully on the market for years. But the new rash of A Vendre signs are planted in practically every little plot of unoccupied land in every village. It looks as though anyone in rural France who owns “un petit coin” of land is trying to flog it – presumably to raise a little capital in order to ride them over the bad times. Who’s going to buy all these plots, or build on them, Lord knows. There are already more houses that are needed, and just at a time when rural France is plunging into what feels like a terminal decline.

We note, for example, that the small dairy farm down the road no longer has cattle on it, and the outbuildings have lost most of their roof tiles. The amiable farmer still lives there, but evidently with no one to take over what must always, with a herd of a dozen cows, have been a marginal business. And so, quietly, a way of life is coming to an end. Small farms are the lifeblood of rural France, and when they go, with them will go centuries of self-sufficient, modest, frugal livelihood.

We have grown used, over the years we’ve lived in our rural South Yorkshire village, to seeing its character eroded. There is still a farm working in the village – but only just. The ancient farm buildings are long gone – all turned into barn-conversions – and the handful of agricultural labourers have given way to middle class commuters. “That’s progress” is the mantra to which one impotently resorts. And it is, of course.

But the character of English villages has not for centuries been as profoundly simple and agricultural as that of France. Sad, if perhaps indulgently sentimental of me, to see all that coming to an end. But it rather looks as though that is what has begun to happen.

A way of life a vendre.

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.. which means, of course, the small and highly combustible material you need to light a fire. Or, in this day and age, self-publishing an eBook on Kindle.

Actually, both meanings suit quite well at the moment - for the author/publisher does indeed want to light a fire that will burn bright, and warm many lives. And that's the kind of fire I've been busy lighting (I hope!) over the last week.

So what have I been doing? Well, first of all I tried to persuade Xlibris (the print-on-demand outfit in the USA who published my first book, The Edge of Things) that the book was hopelessly over-priced. So they suggested I gave them $200 dollars and bought the right to set my own price. Except that this was still subject to their minimum. So that didn't work. And the arrangement didn't apply to the eBook (priced at over £8!!!). So I prised the eBook rights out of their sticky paws, and set about publishing it myself.

I'd already piloted the Kindle process, with the wonderful (no, really!) The Boy and the Mountain, which is available for the princely sum of £1. Patrick produced yet another lovely cover design for it, and it went live on Amazon at the end of last month. So now, The Edge of Things has followed it into author-publication, and is available right now, for £1.01 (why the penny? Ask Amazon, not me!). And so is Slow Furies. Three books just waiting to delight anyone with £3 to spare!

For those who don't know, Slow Furies is a kind of mystery story, about a lonely woman who gets herself involved too closely in her neighbours' past. With - well, lets say, unforseen consequences. The Edge of Things is the powerful, sad story of two unloved young people who find joy in each other. Until the night of the fire ...

And The Boy and the Mountain - well, I wrote it first more than thirty years ago, thinking of it as a book for young people - but it seems to have an engaging adventure at its heart that draws the interest of readers of all ages. It's set in a fictional, historical location, and tells the tale of Tam, a young goat-herd who lives, like all his people, in the shadow of the impassable Mountain. Until one bitter winter the wolves come - and Tam finds himself on an incredible journey.

All very different. Oh, and The Boy and the Mountain has a sequel, almost ready to see the light of day. So get reading!

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 “What,” asked the young lady filling my champagne glass, “is it like to come back after so many years?”
So many years! So many, many years!

Last weekend was the 50thanniversary celebration of the opening of our alma mater, York University, and we spent a long weekend resident on campus and participating in various bashes. To be honest, neither Margaret nor I had any great expectations of the event. Its predecessor, 5 years back, had never quite taken alight, and we knew that very few of our own immediate circle would be there. Some are dead, of course: some did not relish the idea at all: some booked, then lost their nerve and pulled out.

But we went, with, as I say, no expectations. We just felt that – well, the 50th would only come round once, and it was rather special all those decades ago to be among the first of the few. There were only 216 of us, and the tudor Heslington Hall to put us in – and of course we all lived in digs. Having no tradition of student accommodation, York’s good burghers kindly opened their spare bedrooms and front parlours to us, for the huge sum of 63/- (that’s £3.15) a week, B&B and full board on Sundays.

So going back seemed – well, obligatory. And what a weekend it was! The sun shone on the lovely yew-tree lawns of the old Hall, for the Pioneers’ (intake of ’63, ’64 and ’65) event last Friday. The champagne flowed, and so did the conversation. And, of course, we sought out and caught up with many of our generation; but also, unexpected delight, we met many we’d never met before, including current students (see above) and we were enriched by the contagious affection and disparate memories of all those generations. 50 years is a long time.

 We all wore huge ID tags with our names and year writ large, and everyone coming near read these first, and faces second. Rapidly we who bore 66-plates (we were identified by the year of graduation) became kind of minor celebrities. “What was it like?” was the inevitable question; and we, liberated by champagne and our own celebrity, told them!

It was, of course, a marvelous time and place to have been alive, and no blog could possibly do justice to thrill of revisiting those unique, favoured, special memories. But take my word for it, York in ’63 was an astonishing, magical place to have been – life defining.


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Among the very many excellent reasons for spending half our year in France, is the food. The French are very demanding about the quality of what they eat, so if you shop – as we do – in the huge Leclerc hypermarket in Fontenay, you just have to put up with the excellent range and quality of food the French demand.  Anything from bargains like fresh sardines, to luxury meats like veal or pintade, can be had pretty well year-round. And things are sold by their exact variety. In the UK we buy (and enjoy) venison – but in France you must specify the species and sex of the forest meat you’re buying: cerf, or biche, chevreuil … all are precisely named. And of course, different.
Similarly, the humble potato is never just ‘white’ or ‘red’ (as if it mattered what colour the skin was!) but Amandine or Noirmoutier.
Which brings me to strawberries. The hypermarket at the moment will sell you Charlottes or Gariguettes, of which the latter are the more richly nectared. And right now Margaret’s garden, over the road, is providing us with enormous quantities of the latter. They are crimson and luscious berries, that cry out for marinading in a little Pineau des Charentes (a sweet liqueur very popular hereabouts). We’ve eaten vast quantities for a week now, and yesterday, having picked 4kg, made outr first batch of jam of the season. Pleasure to come.
(And again, note, that the hypermarkets have put vast displays of jamming equipment on display at their entrances – beautiful jamming pans in copper or steel, assorted jars, labels, and an amazing range of devices for stirring, measuring, pulping etc. The French really do take food seriously!)

And no blog from here would be complete without a homage to our newly reopened restaurant next door but two. For the last dozen years it has limped on with a variety of proprietors (including, implausibly, a French-American family who couldn’t cook at all!). But this year, after a long period of closure, La Maison des Amis de la Foret is open again. The building is wooden, and built around an amazing, huge open hearth where logs blaze all winter. Its walls are festooned with ancient agricultural and forestry artefacts, and its bar is, amazingly, one rough-hewn horizontal oak-tree from the forest.
Today we fancied a meal there, and were treated to three courses. We started with a plate of charcuterie – six types of cold meats with a salad. Next was an enormous sweet-cured slice of Vendéen ham, served with a honeyed sauce and haricots verts. Then a slice of beautiful tarte au citron for dessert. Oh and the wine, of course- ½ litre of good red. The cost? Well, would you believe 11€? No – I mean for both of us? That’s £9.40!
I ought to confess that this was half-price, because they run a clever little loyalty card which gets you every fifth meal at half price, and every tenth , free. But that in itself is amazing.
Oh, and last Friday, when (as a concession to the English) they serve fish and chips (good stuff, too, I’m told) they recalled a chance comment of mine to the effect that I don’t eat fish ‘n chips – and insisted on serving me a whole duck breast, cooked ‘saignant’ as I like it, with haricots verts. Not on the menu – just offered for the same price!
You may imagine that we deeply hope these lovely people make a go of La Maison. They can certainly count on our custom!


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Block – Unblock

I guess everyone who has ever had a go at writing continuously and at length knows that feeling that, somehow, you can’t get going again. There’s that last page, staring at you, and for whatever reason, you can’t seem to start the next. If you write as I do, following the story where it leads you rather than planning the narrative out in detail before you start, then the block can be particularly intractable.
Some time in the late 1970’s I wrote a kind of adventure story, The Boy and the Mountain, which pleased me greatly at the time (but didn’t attract the interest of any publisher!) In fact it pleased so much that I started a sequel – but after 19,000 words, I laid it aside. I was busy being a husband, father to a growing family,  and heading up a teaching department of thirteen at the time – and it seemed to me that the camel’s back might give way entirely if I stole several hours a week for writing as well. So I laid it aside.
I’ll come back to it sometime, I thought. Later. Later …
So later, I came back to it.  Thirty-several years later, to be exact! Margaret nobly rendered both the finished and the partial book into Word documents (the originals were, of course, typed clunkily on an Olympus typewriter, vintage 1963: no word-processing in those days) and after a lot of stuttering false starts, the time has finally come when I can declare the book finished.
La Palma, the western-most of the Canaries, is a wonderfully tranquil place – and we have found the perfect idyll there. Visit if you want to see it – highly recommended for total, beautiful, chilling out. And in that wonderfully restful and uncluttered place, I managed to knock out the remaining 40,000 words of The Boy Among the Islands.
Finished! After a third of a century gestating! Is this a record?
Getting both books ready to become  Kindle e-books, now – watch this space!


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Testing, testing, testing ...

... so finally the blog renews itself - after much less than a century. Watch this space!

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... and then, suddenly, very quick ...

Did I say that “Slow Furies” was to be published on 23rd September? It seems that Amazon know better! Though Waterstones website is “taking advance orders”, Amazon is assuring visitors that they can have the book by next day delivery - and several good friends have already placed their orders.
In addition (by an irony that anyone who reads the book will discover!) the local daily paper, The Doncaster Star, has rushed out to take my pic - with the book, of course - and should print it tomorrow. Waterstones in Doncaster (yes, these days Doncaster has a real bookshop) have indicated that they’ll carry it, and happily accepted a poster - as has my dear old Foulstone School, where a former colleague is networking news of its arrival around all the other former colleagues still in post, or in touch. And The excellent Jim, self-appointed liaison officer for the class of ’66 at York University, has patched an email about it around his circulation list. Oh, and the Alumni website is already featuring it.
A positive welter of publicity!
Bound to be in the bestseller list soon!
(Oh, and Amazon are advertising the book at £6.29 instead of £6.99 - how do they do that?)

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Very, Very Slow

... in fact so slow, you can’t detect any motion at all. An observation which might be applied to many things. A dead sheep for example ...

(This old lady hasn’t moved for two years, since I first saw her in a pine wood on Alonissos)
... or a dead Blog (this one hasn’t moved for 18 months, I’m afraid: ain’t been a lot to say, perhaps)
... or a book.
Ah, yes - a book. A book with a very slow title. Slow Furies, which I wrote originally four years ago, and have revised at intervals ever since - most recently inspired by the lovely online writing community called Youwriteon - finally found a publisher last October; and now a mere 11 months later, is about to burst upon the world. Which, by comparison with my blog (not to mention the dead sheep) is remarkably swift.
I am, of course, terribly excited. I have pre-production copies already, and they look, with Patrick’s really elegant cover design and a generally very professional job by Olympia Publishers, tremendous. Now I have to hope that they sell. Not that I’m bothered about the income (always nice, though!) - but like everyone else who ever wrote a book, I want it to be read. And appreciated.
Launch date is 23rd September - so watch this space!

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Winter Things

I imagine that four months’ silence is long enough for any reasonable person to have supposed that this Blog is dead - but just in case anyone is still curious enough to look ... another entry.
Winter - always bad, but this year intolerable. I suspect that, like many people, I quasi-hibernate as a means of getting through the short, dark, cold, wet days - and the long nights. Suspended animation. System just ticking over. Waiting for sun and spring. There are, of course, those wonderful days when the sun shines and the grass looks almost green, and the catkins hang like coloured ribbons on the hazel branches, promises of good times coming. Then the spirits lift again. But then winter bites again. Brrrrh!
We’re just back from a couple of weeks in France - sandwiched between a fortnight on Fuerteventura and a fortnight (still to come - hurray) on Lanzarote. France was - as ever - lovely of course. But it’s still northern Europe - and the snow in Brittany made every effort to prevent our reaching our wee house, which when we miraculously arrived was deep in fresh snow, too. The moorhen whose passing left these tracks had been usurped by a frozen pond, and later on I watched as a big, black-bottomed, white-whiskered Coypu skated desperately over its frozen lake. Ice and snow are rare enough in the southern Vendee for both these animals never to have experience it before. Wonder what they thought?
We solved the winter by nipping out for une petite Balade whenever weather allowed - and staying indoors by a log fire for the rest. Nice. Cosy. Oh - and twice in the past week the blessed sunshine warmed our courtyard up for us to lunch en plein air. So perhaps this interminable winter will eventually lose its grip. Can hope.
Oh - and for the first time in some months I see that my book has had a sale! See, Alan, the future is full of hope whichever way you look.

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