Friday, December 21, 2007

Working dog

Border collies don't have the same loutish reputation as Dobermanns or Staffordshire bull terriers, but they can still be pretty intimidating when they want to be. Once they assume the position, that head-down arse-up thing they do, then it's time to make your excuses and leave. They give you the old 'come by' look, and you suddenly remember you're supposed to be somewhere else entirely.

I get attacked by a Welsh Border collie about once every three weeks on average. Same dog, same place. I've kind of gotten used to it, and nowadays I barely flinch. The mad beast hurls itself at me, teeth snapping, but I've just learned to look straight ahead and ignore it. Cool under fire, that's me.

Being in a car helps of course. I don't drive anything very swanky - in fact it's a battered old wreck, in keeping with its owner - but it does at least have the merit of being dog-proof. The critter in question patrols a stretch of pavement outside a pub on the road to Huddersfield. It likes to hide beneath one of the outside tables, waiting for some unsuspecting motorist like me to come tootling along. Then at the last possible second it shoots out from its lair and makes like it's going to bite your wheels off.

The first time this happened to me I damn near had a heart attack. I thought that I'd run the thing over, and swerved out into the middle of the road to try and avoid carnage. But it was just having a little joke with me. I saw it in my rear view mirror, sauntering back to its table and having a good laugh. I didn't find it particularly amusing at the time.

However, I've since begun to see the humour of it all and joined in the fun. Yes, I've had many a chuckle watching some other poor sap bang his skull on the sidescreen in alarm as the dog comes springing out of nowhere. And I suppose the dog's behaviour is understandable. In the absence of any Welsh valleys or sheep to chase around said valleys, it makes do with what it can get. Quite appropriate, in a way. Here we all are, commuting backwards and forwards to Huddersfield like armour-plated sheep, and the dog's just making sure we stay in line, keeping us moving smartly along. It's only doing its job after all.

A Winter's tale

This is actually my brother-in-law Jeff's story, but it has an appropriately wintry theme, and anyway deserves a wider audience.

Come the Apocalypse, Jeff will be a very handy guy to have living just up the street from you because he's got All The Gear. He has a ten-man bivouac, complete with camping stove, wine-rack, pemmican and many other luxuries, all of which folds down into a tobacco tin. I believe he keeps a full team of huskies on standby, tucked away in a leather pouch in his sock drawer. He's well prepared.

So one winter's day Jeff goes walking up on the Yorkshire Moors with his young son Jack, and you'll believe me when I say that they are properly kitted out for the expedition. They have the required maps and compasses, rations, crampons, emergency flares, Bowie knives, anti-wolf spray - the lot. Plus they have the coats, of course, the ones with the metre long hoods that make you look like Kenny from South Park, except these are made of some special kind of micro-fibre and have been tested at sub-cartoon temperatures. All of this is necessary and sensible, because you don't mess around on The Moors in winter. The snow is waist deep in places, and although the weather might be bright and sunny when you start out, it can very quickly change. The black blizzards that sweep across the Russian steppes are actually born here in the Pennines. Oh yus. It's a fact. Even the notoriously tough Marsden sheep admit that it can get damn chilly up there at times.
Serious stuff, then, and Jeff is explaining as much to young Jack, as they set up their own miniature version of Ice Station Zebra in case they should need an emergency stop off point on the way home.
And then this very surreal thing happens. A group of men appear over the brow of a distant hill. They are dressed in nothing but shorts and singlets, and they are running bare-legged through the deep snow. On they come, steam rising from their half naked bodies, arms going like pistons, frozen snot streaking their faces, beards and moustaches white with frost. Fell runners.
Very few people have seen fell runners, those legendary creatures, and so their reputation is akin to that of Sasquatch or the Flying Dutchman - not everybody is convinced that such things exist. But Jeff and Jack witnessed the whole thing, swivelling their tunnelled hoods like SteadyCams to gaze upon these mythic moors-men, far from anywhere, pounding their way forever across the frozen wastes. A once in a lifetime experience, and something I wouldn't mind seeing myself some day, although I'd prefer it to be from a helicopter. They must be a different breed, these guys, some kind of Iron Age throwback. I like to think that they were running barefoot, but Jeff says he believes they were wearing daps.

Monday, December 10, 2007


Here's a partial list of titles that I've had a hand in...

Written and/or illustrated for younger children:
· A Lazy Day, Fabbri & Partners (London, England), 1974.
· The River That Disappeared, Fabbri & Partners (London, England), 1974.
· The Willow Tree, Fabbri & Partners (London, England), 1974.
· Pig, Deutsch (London, England), 1976, Bradbury (New York, NY), 1977.
· Barnaby Shrew Goes to Sea, Deutsch (London, England), 1978.
· Barnaby Shrew, Black Dan, and the Mighty Wedgwood, Deutsch (London, England), 1979.
· Mr Mick, Deutsch (London, England), 1980.
· January Jo and Friends, Deutsch (London, England), 1981
· Bill Graham, Septimus Fry, F.R.S.; or, How Mrs Fry Had the Cleverest Baby in the World, Deutsch (London, England), 1980.
· Eric Charles, Bertha and the Windmills, Deutsch (London, England), 1986.
· Eric Charles, Bertha and a Mouse in the Works, Deutsch (London, England), 1986.
· Eric Charles, Bertha and the Best Machine Competition, Deutsch (London, England), 1986.
· Eric Charles, Bertha and the Great Painting Job, Deutsch (London, England), 1986.
· Eric Charles, Bertha and the Lost Tom, Deutsch (London, England), 1986.
· Eric Charles, Bertha and the Flying Bear, Deutsch (London, England), 1986.
· Eric Charles, Bertha Annual, Polystyle Publications Ltd. (London, England), 1986.
· Illustrator of weekly "Bertha" comic strip, Kingsborn Ltd.,

Illustrated and/or paper engineered.
· (With Elinor Bagenal) Tractor Factory (pop-up book), Golden Books (New York, NY), 1994.
· (Paper Engineer) Humpty Dumpty, Lodestar Books (New York, NY), 1996.
· Tractor Trouble (pop-up book), Lodestar Books (New York, NY), 1996.
· Five Speckled Frogs: And Other Counting Rhymes, Cartwheel Books (New York, NY), 1997.
· The Hokey Pokey: And Other Party Rhymes, Cartwheel Books (New York, NY), 1997.
· The Itsy Bitsy Spider: And Other Hand Rhymes, Cartwheel Books (New York, NY), 1997.
· Row, Row, Row Your Boat: And Other Play Rhymes, Cartwheel Books (New York, NY), 1997.
· Fire Engine to the Rescue (pop-up book), Tupelo Books (New York, NY), 1998.
· Here Comes the Lifeboat!, Orion Children's (London, England), 2000.
· When I Grow Up, Grosset & Dunlap (New York, NY), 2000.
· Vroom! Vroom!: A Pop-up Race to the Finish!, David & Charles Children's (London, England), 2000, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2001.
· Big Nose, Small Nose: A Book of Opposites, Mathew Price (Sherborne, England), 2001.
· Garage (pop-up book), Mathew Price (Sherborne, England), 2001, Charlesbridge Pub. (Watertown, MA), 2002.
· Mathew Price, Little Red Car Gets into Trouble, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 2000.
· Mathew Price, Little Red Car Has an Accident, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 2000.
· Mathew Price, Little Red Car in the Snow, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 2000.
· Mathew Price, Little Red Car Plays Taxi, Abbeville Press (New York, NY), 2000.
· Mathew Price, Patch and the Rabbits, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2000.
· Mathew Price, Patch Finds a Friend, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2000.
· (Paper engineer) Juan Wijngaard Buzz! Buzz!, Lodestar Books (New York, NY), 1995.
· Mathew Price, Don't Worry Alfie, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1999.
· Mathew Price, Where's Alfie, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1999.

TV credits.
Artwork and music for the BBC children’s TV series ‘Bump’.
Illustrator of many ‘Bump’ books.
Work for older children
· The Various, David Fickling Books (Oxford, England), 2003, Random House (New York, NY), 2004.
· Celandine, David Fickling Books (Oxford, England), 2005, Random House (New York, NY), 2006.
· Winter Wood, David Fickling Books (Oxford, England), 2008.

Forthcoming titles/work in progress
X Isle, a novel for older children. Publication date April ’09. (David Fickling Books)
The Boy Aviators. A novel in progress. (for David Fickling Books.)

Monday, December 03, 2007

A note to collectors.

Many collectors prefer to buy their copies of my books direct from me, signed and dated. Information has been sent out recently with a misquote of the retail cover price for Winter Wood. It should have read £12.99 and not £13.99. Discounted price for signed copies direct from me should therefore have been £10.99. Apologies.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Winter Wood release date

Release date for the UK hardback has now been set for January 3rd 2008. I should be receiving my author's approval copy today or tomorrow. I'm really excited to see how it looks.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Frying pan, fire etc.

I've changed servers and am now with Talk Talk. Whether they'll be any improvement over the last set of clowns remains to be seen.

I'm not sure that I'm allowed to put an actual email link in the text here, but it's augarde at talktalk dot net.

Apologies to anyone who's been trying to get in touch recently.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stage Fright

I tipped up at an open mic session the other night, played a couple of songs, got away with it, retired unhurt. Open mic nights are a good thing all round, I think. For the performer there's the opportunity to try out a couple of numbers without the responsibility of having to carry the whole evening, and for the audience there's always the prospect of something better coming along than this nimrod.

Somebody asked me in a later conversation had I ever had stage fright?

Yes I have. Twice.

Stage-fright isn't just the understandable nervousness that anyone who's about to perform has to go through. It's a fear so irrational that if you were capable of making the choice between facing the audience before you and the grizzly bear that had somehow strolled onto the stage behind you, you'd choose the bear. (In fact I've since thought that Shakespeare's famous stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear' was the easy get-out clause.)

My first experience of stage-fright was relatively mild. It happened in a pub where some old friends of mine were playing - a jazz band that I'd been involved with some years previously. I'd turned up in passing, and thought I'd look in and see if they were still going. The band leader saw me at the back of the audience and said 'Bloody hell - it's Augarde. Come and have a go, mate. Sing us a song.' Well you can't not, and it was only a pub gig. No big deal, then. So I pushed my way to the front, and the band started playing the opening bars of a song that I must have sung with them a hundred times.

Jesus. I thought I was going to die. There was the microphone, all wet with someone else's spit, there was the cue, and I couldn't make a sound. Absolute terror. The lads had to go through the intro again as I just stood there shaking. Ridiculous. Second time around I managed to croak out some approximation of the song being played, but you could see people thinking 'Whose stupid idea was it to get him up?'

So I stumbled away from that experience and went logging in Canada for the next eight years. (I lie, but that's what I should have done.)

The next occasion was far worse. I was supposed to be giving a talk about children's books, and publishing in general, to a group of parents and teachers. This was at Bath University. I'd arrived a bit late, and so I was under some pressure to sort myself out quickly. The room was filling up behind me as I was still setting out my stall - getting a display of books organised, flip chart, pens, etc. I was maybe a bit flustered, but not especially worried or nervous. I'd given such talks before, and I hadn't felt the need to do much in the way of preparation.

So I turned to face the audience, the woman organising the event introduced me, and I was on my own. There were all these rows of faces, arranged in a semi-circle as I remember, everyone smiling. I stood looking back at the audience, searching for a few opening words...

But I couldn't seem to find any way of beginning. Couldn't get a single idea in my head to work on. The silence went on a bit too long, and I thought - my God, what if I really can't think of anything to say?

And then it was like everything just seized up completely. This white fog of terror came down on me, and I couldn't even move. Months passed, everybody still staring at me, and me staring back at them. The smiles were starting to look horribly fixed now, like everybody had begun to realise that there was a lunatic between them and the exit. I thought - I'm going to have to pretend that I'm ill. And I am ill, dammit. Yes, I'll double over like I've got renal failure or something, and stagger for the door. Pursued by a bear. Brilliant.

So I turned away, judging the distance I'd have to cover, and saw the blank page of the flip chart in front of me - realised that I had a marker pen in my hand. I think this was what saved me. Some Pavlovian reaction kicked in, and I put the tip of the pen onto the pad. I wrote the word Author. Then I drew a little arrow, and wrote the word Editor. Then another arrow leading to Distributor. I started to feel a bit better then.

I made the words go round in a circle: Author, Editor, Publisher, Distributor, Retail, Parent/Teacher, Child. And so back to Author. The publishing cycle.

'This is how long it takes,' I said, 'for an author's words to finally reach their audience. Seems like forever, doesn't it?'

Since then I've made very certain that if I'm booked to appear somewhere, I at least know how I'm going to begin. His Bobness once said something about knowing your song well before you start singing. Good advice, although not necessarily proof against stage-fright. Take your own bear with you everywhere you go, that's what I say.

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Thousand A Day

I'm currently trying to keep up an average of a thousand words a day on my new book. This is actually quite do-able, provided I don't allow myself to be distracted.

Distractions may include, but are not necessarily restricted to:

*Phone ringing.
*Doorbell ditto.
*Things breaking down, such as cookers, fridges, computers.
*Restless leg syndrome.
*The call of the wild.
*The call of the digestive biscuit.
*The call of the internet.

The call of the internet is probably the most pernicious of these, and the most difficult to avoid. But I'm trying to stay away, which of course means that I'm not doing a lot of blogging.

If you're really that stumped for something to read, you might be interested in this recent interview I did with Dolores D'Annolfo for the online magazine Eclectica

Monday, October 22, 2007

Some Angry Angel

Some angry angel,

Bleared by Bach and too inbred,
Crept out of bed, pulled on a sock,
And glancing downwards threw a rock,
Which struck an earthbound peacock’s head.
The peacock fell.
The peacock’s yell, outraged by such treason,
Demanded to know why it
Out of millions should be hit,
And instantly invented a reason.

This is one of a very few poems that I can quote by heart and write down without resorting to the original text. When I first read it, as a late teenager, it seemed to me perfect. It used memorable imagery to express the randomness of fortune, and I loved the internal rhythms and rhymes.

The poem was used by writer Richard Condon as an epigraph to his novel ‘Some Angry Angel’. It apparently came from a mysterious collection of poems known as ‘The Keener’s Manual’.

I doubt that many people will be familiar with Condon’s name, although several of his books have been adapted and made into well known films, including ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ and ‘Prizzi’s Honor’.

What’s weird is that there is no ‘Keener’s Manual’. It’s an invention of Condon’s. He wrote the poem ‘Some Angry Angel’ himself.

I learn this on a weekend where the English peacock seems to have suffered a veritable plague of angry angels. In two days we’ve managed to lose the rugby, the Formula 1, and the snooker. For many invented reasons.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Comes as a bit of a shock, doesn't it, to realise that somebody's entered your house and stolen some of your belongings? Yes, and it's scarier still when you consider that the house was occupied at the time...people asleep...

We're the victims of what's known as a 'sneak in'. That's as opposed to a break in. No windows smashed, no locks forced, no wilful wreckage or damage, nobody hurt. Some chancer has simply walked in through the (unlocked) front door, climbed the stairs to the first floor, grabbed a handbag, and made off with it.

I suppose it's our own fault, in a way. I'd left the house at about eight o'clock in the evening, wasn't sure whether our youngest daughter had a key on her, and so left the door unlocked. My wife had gone to bed unusually early, upstairs, and a friend of ours who was staying for the weekend had done the same, downstairs, as he wasn't feeling too well. At about ten thirty our friend woke up for a moment, heard somebody come in through the front door, and just assumed it was me returning. Went back to sleep.

In the morning my wife realised her handbag had gone. Not good.

Still, worse things could have happened, and so we haven't taken up offers of counselling (but thanks guys) and life goes on - along with the alarm system. The real curse is what was in the handbag. Forget the mobile phone, the Blackberry, the purse and the money. They're all replaceable. The bank cards, the driving licence, &c &c can all be cancelled. The precious photos of the kids are nowhere near as precious as the kids themselves.

No, the real loss is the paperwork. It's the filofax with its hundreds of contacts and appointments. It's the confidential patient notes, the job applications from prospective employees, the lecture notes, the annotated books. It's the countless hours of work that can never be recouped, the indispensable record of a life in progress - and one connected to the well-being of others at that.

And now some little git who probably can't even read has chucked it all over a wall somewhere.
Oh well. Maybe they'll spend the money on glue and roll up at a certain local hospital in need of treatment...

One can only hope.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I see the moon, and the moon sees me...

I suspect that the difference between 'loveable eccentric' and 'dangerous lunatic' is largely one of money in the end. It's imperative that I get rich, therefore, if I'm to avoid being locked up.

This morning I poured black coffee on my cornflakes. Again. It wasn't until I began to add the milk that I realised something was terribly amiss. I don't quite know what it is about coffee that throws me. Maybe it's an early morning thing, and I simply haven't got myself properly into gear. I've been known to put the coffee pot in the fridge, once the coffee's made, and then wonder what the hell I've done with it. I've even made it and then tipped it carefully down the sink, making sure that the grounds don't splash up onto the draining board.

I also do a fair amount of that standing still and scratching my chin business, and thinking - er...what did I come in here for? Eventually the newsagent waves a clue, and then I'm OK again.

None of this would matter, provided I could afford a private nurse to wheel me about and point me in the appropriate direction. Toothbrush. Suit. Double bass. Microphone.

Fortunately I do find it quite funny - though not quite as hilarious as my nearest and dearest. I tell them they should be trying to preserve me for a little longer, and keep me from being slung into a bridewell at least until they have jobs and are able to support themselves. I wouldn't have let my Dad go out looking like that, I say, at least not without warning the neighbours...

Some time ago I tried to unlock my car with the TV remote. Prodding away with the thing for about twenty seconds, I must have been, before spotting my mistake. Fortunately nobody saw me.

"But what button were you using?" my kids wanted to know. What button? What possible difference could that make? It was never going to work, as any fool could tell you.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No 3: Newts.

'Newt'. Funny little word. It sounds properly ancient, doesn't it? If you travelled back through the ages saying the word 'newt' to people, you imagine that it would be many hundreds of years before you got to a point in history where nobody understood what you were talking about. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Aubrey, all would have used the same word that we do now. You could probably have had quite the conversation with them. 'Newt?' 'Ah! Newt!' And so on.

Yet the newt is not quite as ancient as I thought. I learn today that the term was originally 'ewt', and it was one of those word cases known as false splitting. 'An ewt' became 'a newt'. Orange is a better known example. 'Narangi' in Sanskrit, still 'naranja' in Spanish, it became 'norange' in English. Easy to see how a norange would then develop into an orange.

But back to newts. The current Mayor of London is famously fond of them, and I have to say that I am too. Wonderful little gadgets. Palmate, Crested, the Common or Smooth, I've kept them all - or at least kept them as long as the old tin bath in our garden could contain them. They usually made a bid for freedom after a day or two, and took their chances. And sometimes, a day or two after that, you'd find a newt-shaped splatter out on the front path or beside one of the dustbins, all dried up in the sun. And then you'd have to put on your wellie boots and go to the pond and catch some more. Such is the unthinking cruelty of boys.

Once natural features of the landscape, ponds were essential watering holes for sheep and cattle before the advent of water troughs, but they had a far more important role as ready made adventure playgrounds for us children. You could chuck things in them, fish stuff out of them, go skating on them in winter, even drown in them if you weren't paying attention. And of course they were the most wonderful pet shops. Frogs, sticklebacks, whole flotillas of water-boatmen - you just went down to the pond and helped yourself. And if you got fed up with the amphibious, then exploration of the immediate surroundings would often turn up some other class of pet for your entertainment - a slow-worm, maybe, or one of those little black lizards, or a baby rook. It was an unfortunate creature that decided to take up residence in or around a pond. Destined for a long and peaceful life it wasn't.

I liked newts best, though. They were so pretty and so very easy to catch. Plus they didn't hop about like frogs were apt to, and so they might stay in their tin bath and submit to being 'looked after' a little longer than a frog would. Consequently their survival rate was much lower. If the cat didn't get them then a diet of Sunblest and Kennomeat probably would.

But despite my best efforts I don't really suppose that I'm responsible for the demise of the newt. By the time I left Somerset all the ponds in our area had gone. I can remember there being a good half dozen within easy walking distance of where we lived, but eventually they were all filled in, built on, or simply reclaimed as valuable land. So it's the pond that has actually become extinct, and from there a whole microcosm of nature has disappeared - including the common newt and the very common little boy.

I blame the farmers of course. Well, it's only fair. They blamed me often enough, as I recall.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Keep it simple, stupid.

Today I find the word 'chthonic' in the middle of a book review that I'm reading. Chthonic? Am I really supposed to know what that means? I'm wary of even trying to pronounce it, having only just eaten. So I must either look it up or make a guess. I look it up. It means 'of the underworld'. Oh.

We expand our vocabulary in order to find better ways of expressing ourselves, and it's no great hardship to have to reach for the dictionary once in a while. This is how we learn. But for a writer to use a word in the certain knowledge that the majority of readers won't know its meaning is surely to use the wrong word. Cleverness over clarity.

Judging the vocabulary of your target age group is one of the great disciplines of writing children's books. The most complex of subjects and emotions and ideas can be tackled, but you really can't expect kids to be thumbing through Webster's at every other sentence. So what do you do - dumb it all down and try to keep your prose to words of one syllable? (Which I almost managed to do there.) No. You reign in the adult writers' tendency to show everyone what a smartarse you are, and go for clarity. And yes, this is a discipline, but by no means a limitation. Simple can still be elegant, poetic even.

'Explain it to me in layman's terms' is what we say to our doctor/accountant/lawyer/garage mechanic, when they start to go over our heads.
'Alright then,' they reply, 'You've got malaria/you owe the taxman/you're going down/your car's knackered.'
'Oh. Then why didn't you say so, instead of giving me all that technical guff? You had me worried there for a moment - just look what you've done to my pulse rate. I've come over all tachycardic...'

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Something about books

I tend not to talk very much about the process of writing, unless I'm specifically invited to. There are so many ways of approaching it, so many areas of conflicting advice, that it’s difficult to find universal truths or even anything reliably useful to say on the subject. Certainly there are few unbreakable rules in the pursuit of ‘good’ writing.

It was heartening, therefore, to hear a critic give an insider’s view as to how a book might be judged. Here also, on the other side of the fence, there seems to be no one standard by which the worth of a book can be measured, no straightforward method of reaching a conclusion. ‘Good’ writing isn’t that easy to pin down. (Or maybe it’s simply that good writing isn’t that easy to put down.) I read the following newspaper article a week or so ago, and enjoyed it so much that I asked its author if she would post it to me.

This is Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian, and for my money a voice of reason:

25 Aug 2007: The Guardian - Page 42 - (332 words)
Readers’ page: Questions, questions: How do you judge a book?
By: Claire Armitstead

The question I’m most often asked, when people hear I run a literary prize, is “what makes a good book?” Putting aside the obvious answer - if I knew that, I’d have written one - it tends to throw me into a frenzy of shrugs and approximations. I had an argument with a Booker-winning author about this, and he was adamant a great novel had to work on the level of the sentence: every sentence should be beautifully balanced, free from cliche and redundant wordage or sentiment. I rarely encounter one of those, and if I do, I fear I might dismiss it as precious.

Isn’t it possible a great book can be constructed from individual sentences that aren’t that perfect?Might that not be the whole point? How can you evoke a rough, porous old world in sentences that are smooth and impermeable? It’s an impression confirmed by my reading for this year’s Guardian first book prize: several works of fiction were so glassily accomplished that I longed for some fissure, some tree root to trip me up and make me feel something, anything, beyond cool admiration.

At the other end of the faultline are the great galloping books with a big story to tell and no particular elegance in telling it. These are often stories of extremity - personal, political in either fiction or non-fiction - that seem to get by on some notion of authenticity. If they connect with the reader, who am I to say they are not good books?

All I can say, in the end, is that a good book is one that does what it intends to do (surprising how many first novels lose the plot towards the end). Yes, they do need to be well-written and they do need to tell an interesting story, but they also need to have an energy, a spark that is easier to recognise than it is to analyse, for the simple reason that a really good book is unique unto itself.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Brief Encounter

Going shopping with a teenager demands more physical endurance than I can now muster, and so two hours of hurtling through the malls and department stores of Huddersfield yesterday had about done for me. I was flagging somewhat, and as I reached the exit door of Boots my youngest daughter was already down the steps and out into the street.
Coming up the steps – and at a far more sensible pace – was an elderly man. I was glad of the excuse to stop for a moment, and so I held the door open for him and waited. As he drew level he glanced up at me and smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
It was only when he spoke that I realised who he was: Peter Sallis.

The TV programme ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ must be into something like its zillionth series, and so Mr. Sallis’s face (as the character of Cleggy) is familiar to all in the UK, but it was his voice that I recognised first - the unmistakable voice of Wallace and Gromit.

There’s a connection between us, though he wouldn’t know it. Twenty years ago, when I was involved in making the children’s TV animation series, 'Bump', we were looking for someone to do the narration. I remember a meeting between the animation team from CMTB and the producers of the series.
“You know who’s got a great voice?” I said. “That guy in ‘Last Of The Summer Wine.”
“Who – Compo? Bill Owen?”
“No, the other one. The one who plays Cleggy: Peter Sallis?”
“Oh yeah, I know who you mean…”
The idea was tossed around a bit, but I think maybe the producers felt that I’d had more than enough input already, what with doing the artwork and the music. And in any case Dennis Hooper, the main man behind 'Bump', already had another actor in mind, 'Hi-de-Hi' star, Simon Cadell. It was Simon who eventually got the job, and very good he was too.

Bristol in the late eighties was a big centre for animation. Everybody knew each other and there was a fair bit of crossover from team to team. Steve Box, new boy on the CMTB team, eventually became Nick Parks’ right hand man over at Aardman Animation, and I think Terry Brain from CMTB also did some work for Aardman.

A couple of years later, when the first Aardman production of Wallace and Gromit was released, I recognised the voice that I’d first come up with for Bump. Peter Sallis. Hey, I told them you’d be good, I thought. Probably just coincidence, but I’ve often since wondered whether my suggestion had subconciously been taken on board, to crop up again at Aardman.

So anyway, I was remembering all this yesterday as I held open the door of Boots the chemist for Peter Sallis. Maybe he was there to buy some Wallace and Gromit shampoo, or some Wallace and Gromit soap-on-a-rope. I bet people keep asking him to say ‘Cracking weather, Gromit’ or ‘I do like a nice piece of Wensleydale.’ Does he bless the day that Wallace and Gromit came into his life, or does he curse it? And is it in any way my fault? Too late to bring it up now of course.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and let the gentleman pass by.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No.2: Small Ads.

OK, small ads are not exactly extinct. There’s still Exchange and Mart, I suppose, and various trade publications, but you don’t see pages and pages of little illustrated ads like you used to - daily papers, magazines and comics all crammed with the most strange and unlikely products aimed at the casual reader. TV and the internet have long taken over as the big advertising mediums. It’s a pity. I really don’t know where you’d go, nowadays, if you wanted to buy some X-Ray Specs or a C-Back-O-Scope.

I love small ads. They offer a great history lesson. You can gauge the state of a nation by the tone and content of the advertisements in any given period. UK women’s magazines during the second World War were understandably full of ideas for making the rations stretch a bit further: ‘Buy Brown and Poulson’s Cornflour! (And look! You can turn the box into a pretty little hat!”) Quite. And then paint your legs with the remains of the gravy browning before you go off dancing at the Alhambra.

Some time ago I managed to pick up a bundle of 1930s magazines from Depression era America, and you can smell the desperation in the content of the small ads: ‘Sell Suits On Our Easy Credit Plan!’ ‘Train For Radio and Electricity’, ‘His Salary Raised While Others Fell’, ‘Play Hawaiian Guitar and Earn Big Money! (One Week home tutor course shows you how.’) I can just imagine some poor hungry cracker spending his last few bucks on a Hawaiian guitar. “Kids, our troubles are over!” Then there were the adverts for liver pills, asthma pills, backache, belly-ache and heart-ache pills…

Most of the superhero comics I read as a boy were from the States. This was during the late fifties/early sixties, by which time the small ads at the back told of a land far wealthier than our own. Why, over there, for just a few weeks of summer fun delivering said comics, you could get yourself a wonderful new bike! Free! And look at the thing – it had E-Z-Shift gearing and whitewall tyres and dynamo lights! Crikey, the whole family could probably sit round it of an evening warming their hands on the glow of the paintwork.

And if you were a lazy sod, like me, who’d far rather be reading comics than selling them, you could just work a little less and go for a BB gun instead. (Whatever that might be.) Even a totally wheelchair-bound kid with leukaemia, like my friend Spiggy down the road, could probably earn himself a Real Working Telescope – simply by flinging comics out of his bedroom window into the neighbouring porches.

Well maybe the reality wasn’t quite so simple. Maybe it would have actually taken a bit longer than the projected few weeks to sell the necessary quota of comics (about fifteen million, if I remember rightly) in order to get that bike. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if there are ancient grey-bearded men hobbling around Montana even now, still trying to shift enough copies of Green Lantern to qualify for a Daisy air rifle.

But it was the dream, you see, that was important. I think that when the era of small ads died away, a lot of good dreams died with it.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No.1. Knitting.

From about 1929 – 1957 girls used to be born with a knitting needle in each hand. It was a kind of evolutionary and cultural blip, tricky for the midwives of the time but they coped. By marriageable age a girl was expected to be able to knit her own trousseau, and, in some of the remoter parts, a husband to go with it.

Knitting skills became so developed that during the Second World War women were often employed in munitions, taking the place of engineers. My own mother used to knit Halifax bombers. It was all done to the standard Sirdar pattern and straightforward enough, Mum said, although the tail-gunner’s turret required some concentration what with the reverse stitching.

After demob, when all the men came home, this kind of precision knitting was no longer required, but many women kept it up as a hobby. Instead of producing tanks and submarines they knitted clothes for their children – still with that same ironclad quality to the design. This is the knitting that I remember.

Take the balaclava helmet, for instance. It made me laugh this week to hear of some entrepreneur who’d come up with the idea of ‘slashproof’ blazers for schoolchildren – clothing able to withstand a knife attack - as if this was something new. Knife attack? The balaclavas my mother made for me would have been proof against heavy mortar fire. You could have dipped me in a volcano wearing one of those things and I’d have been OK.

Working on the munitions production lines had given Mum a taste for the mechanical, and it wasn’t long before she got herself a professional knitting machine. There was no stopping her then. The sound of the Passap whizzing back and forth was part of the background noise in our house, and not a week went by when we children didn’t sally forth into the streets wearing some creation calculated to stagger humanity. Jumpers, mittens, hats, skirts…I think I even had a pair of woollen swimming trunks at one point. Although I’ve been trying to block that particular memory out, and now I’ve gone and thought about it again. Damn.

And the wool itself…can’t imagine where that came from. Some very special shop. Beano wool, as opposed to Marks and Spencer wool. It was always flecked – pink with black fleck, green with pink fleck, black with green fleck. But purple with black fleck was the favourite, and this one used to match the complexion of the embarrassed wearer very nicely.

I begin to wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t an exercise in persuading children to leave home as soon as possible. It worked for me. On the very day that my mother knitted me a pair of stilts I ran away and joined the circus.

You really don’t see that kind of knitting any more.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Zen and the Art of Computer Maintenance

I have an uneasy relationship with computers, as friends and regular readers will know. But my latest crash has helped me to understand the beast a little better, and I can now offer a few Zen-based maintenance tips for those interested.

The fundamental mistake I've made in the past is in imagining a computer to be an inanimate object. It’s not. A computer is a godless and uneducated little twerp. It needs to be cosseted, humoured and then finally brought to enlightenment. So:

1. Never place a cup of coffee and a Danish pastry anywhere near a computer. It will become insanely jealous and immediately start to play up.

2. Never go into ‘Search’ and ask three questions in a row that a computer can’t answer. Computers like to appear intelligent and it rags them off no end if you show up the limitations of their 0/1 code system. The sound of one hand clapping is a good example. Hard enough for us humans to grasp, but damn near impossible in binary.

3. Never set a computer a long and boring task and then just wander off in search of something more distracting to look at (a snail crossing the patio, for instance). Computers become morose and recalcitrant if you don’t continually boost their self esteem. You need to stick around, saying things like "Wow! 4% downloaded already and only thirty five minutes gone! This machine is amazing!” Stuff like that. You might then be able to slip out into the kitchen just for two seconds and make yourself some Welsh Rabbit, although it's still likely that you'll find a sly and sulky note waiting for you upon your return: An error has occurred…Windows needs to close...

4. Computers appreciate a little nap in the afternoons. It recharges their batteries. Don’t make them do anything complicated between 3.15 and 4.30.

5. Computers think of themselves as being interesting - artistic even. Learn to pander to their little flounces, and be creative in your response. When your screen freezes, don’t just switch it off and reboot, because then all this BIOS stuff will come up and it’s like reading Catalan. Try pouring a teaspoonful of olive oil into the LAN socket instead, and then sticking the tip of your little finger in there and wiggling it about a bit. This will help keep your relationship with your computer fresh and exciting. I like to keep a tin of lighter fuel and a Zippo on my workdesk. It’s kind of a Hendrix thing. Makes my Toshiba feel like a Strat. I mean I might start typing with my teeth or set the keys ablaze at any moment. Just knowing that seems to keep my computer in a good state of alertness.

6. Remember that in this Zen-like journey together it’s you who must establish yourself as the Master, with your computer as pupil – not the other way around. So when you type ‘BlueBird’ into Google Image search and some big girl with no clothes on pops up, you must appear disappointed but never shocked. Don’t jerk back from the screen in alarm and start pounding at the exit keys will-nilly. Peer a little closer and say, “Well, that’s the worst likeness of Donald Campbell I ever saw. And anyway, what I was really looking for was toffees. The BlueBird brand. As established by Harry Vincent of Birmingham.1927.” Your computer will feel slightly ashamed of itself, but also impressed by your superior breadth of knowledge. It will then achieve enlightenment and go off and get you the toffees.

Thursday, August 09, 2007


My computer's disappeared down a rabbit hole. Again. Managed to get back online with my laptop, but email's not working. Apologies to anybody currently waiting to hear from me.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

No time to say goodbye.

I finished off the final illustration for Winter Wood last night. Done dusted and off to press. So that's it. I could probably write a long and quite emotional piece about how it feels to be saying goodbye to them all - these characters I've been living with for the last six years - but for the moment I'm just going to let them slip quietly out of the back door without any fuss. They can find their own way, I'm sure.

And anyway there's a new lot standing at the porch, clamouring to be let in. Better go and see what they want.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blackpool illumination

I like to pop into my St. James club on a Wednesday night for a game of billiards (oh, alright then, it's a local workingman's club in Peel Street and it's snooker) and this week we saw an interesting notice pinned up next to the cue rack.

'Holidays in Blackpool. £99.
Seven nights accommodation.
To include transport, breakfast and evening meals.'

Eddie and I did some quick sums on our fingers, and two little light bulbs went on simultaneously - a veritable illumination. My God, (we said), if you went on holiday to Blackpool every week of the year it'd come to less than five grand! For about the price of renting a Leeds bedsit you could be beside-the-seaside-beside-the-sea, and living like a Regent! Forever!

No council tax, no house insurance, no more cooking or laundry or washing up. There'd probably be a 'turn' on most nights...'Jayde Crystal at the Organ' or 'Foxi McPhee and her Furry Friend' or whatever...

OK, so you'd have to find your lunch, but I expect they'd whip you up an egg sandwich if you asked. We could do a bit of busking during the day, make a few quid, and then spend the evenings as boulevardiers, sitting at cafe tables and idly stirring our demi-tasses with a stick of Blackpool rock. How wonderful!

So. The house goes on the market this morning, and the wife and kids can start whittling clothes pegs for all I care. I'm on the corner waiting for the charabanc.

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Round Room

This is the very amazing 'Round Room' at Port Eliot, where I shall be giving a mumble at this year's Litfest. Sunday 22 July. 3 pm, I believe. Do come and flick things at me if you happen to be in the vicinity.

Curious Laws of Physics

I think that a desire to peer into the deeper mysteries of the cosmos is something that must come with maturity. I don't remember wanting to explore the outer reaches of physics as a younger man, but now such things intrigue me.

For instance, how is it possible for one little old lady with nine inch hips to occupy a whole pavement? Is that something to do with nature expanding to fill a vacuum?

And why is it that coat hangers multiply like rabbits so that you've always got too many of them, when ballpoint pens by contrast are able to decrease their tribe until they exist only in minus figures, so that you then have to buy a dozen in order for there to be one?

Who proposed this ridiculous idea that for every force there has to be an equal opposing force? What nonsense. Headwinds and tailwinds are a good example of opposites that exist only in theory. Go out on a bicycle and battle your way around blustery Yorkshire searching for a 'tailwind'. You'll be a long time gone.

Lately I've been making a study of the levitating properties of ordinary household objects. Yes indeed. And I believe I'm close to disproving the outdated law that everything that goes up must come down. Cups, for instance, and plates and bowls and pickle jars and yoghurt pots and all manner of cutlery. I've noticed how these things are able to rise of their own volition, and float right up through the house until the bedroom ceilings finally get in the way and they can ascend no further. Oddly enough it's always my daughters' bedrooms that they seem to seek out. Something to do with the rarity of the atmosphere I shouldn't wonder, but it's here that they remain, hovering, and emitting a strange hum. You could leave them there till Domesday, but they'll never ever come down.

I find it extraordinary - in fact I'm thinking of writing a paper exclusively on this subject - but our privileged pair show no curiosity in the matter. As I say, I think the enquiring mind is something that develops with age.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

DFB party

My social life, as everyone knows, is a whirling carousel of coloured lights marred only by the occasional vague feeling of regret at not having refused that final glass of champagne.

So it was this morning as we wandered about Oxford. My wife took the above picture of students, all togged up for their graduation ceremony, as they passed beneath the Bridge of Sighs. Quite a spectacle, and under other circumstances one that might have held my interest a little longer, but I felt that what I really wanted to be looking at was a cup of coffee. Preferably in a shady corner. Somewhere well away from the bright sunlight and the pounding of the bells...

Fellow author, illustrator and musician Paddy Mounter was in the same reflective mood, and so we hid ourselves away in the coffee shop above Waterstones and got into a staring match with our Americanos. Our respective wives, Gina and Patsy, were bearing up rather better - quite cheerful in fact. I suppose that at some point in their lives they've both learned the value of that simple little sentence 'No thanks, I've had enough.'

We'd all been to David Fickling's 'Now We Are Six' party the night before - a celebration of six years of the DFB publishing imprint. It was pretty impressive. They held it in the lovely grounds of Worcester College - all lakes and cloisters and hallowed halls. The perfect setting for a publishers' bash. Some of David's team had put together a half-hour cabaret, and that was fun. Not often you get to watch your publisher and your editors singing for their suppers. Paddy and I did a couple of our Gents numbers. A young guitarist called Jake sat in with us, but he was far too brilliant for his own good, I'm afraid. We took him round the back of the marquee afterwards and broke his fingers for him - it's a rite of passage they all have to go through.

Philip Pullman came and told us how much he'd enjoyed it. He's a big jazz fan, and as knowledgeable about that as he is about everything else in this universe and the next. I asked him if it was true that he played ukulele, and he said yes it was. He favours the Martin, I gather. Might there be a chance of him whipping out his Little Martin and giving us a quick burst at some similar gathering in the future? Er...possibly.

So watch this space. If I can get Mr. Pullman singing 'Mr. Woo' to a champagne-fuelled audience of agents, authors, publishers, booksellers and caterers then it'll be worth feeling a whole lot worse than this the morning after.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre...

No, honestly, it did. We were down in London last weekend - my wife, daughters, and me. The two girls had decided that they wanted to go and see some appalling Andrew Lloyd-Webber thing that's been on the telly recently. Don't even ask. Gina and I were going to drop them off at the Adelphi, and then go on to a jazz club somewhere.

So we all left the hotel at the same time and toddled along the Strand - girls in front, arm in arm, dressed up to the nines, and Gina and I keeping a respectful ten paces to the rear as parents are required to do.

I have to say they looked pretty good, those girls. They're wearing skirts short this year, and they do have the legs for it. If ever I'm stuck for ready cash I shall be auctioning them off on ebay. Their wardrobes alone must be worth the price of a flat in Mayfair. Yes, perhaps it's time we saw some return on our investment...

Anyway, they're turning a few male heads, and I'm feeling that mixed sense of pride and propriety that I suppose all fathers experience under such circumstances. Half of me thinks 'Blimey...did I have some part in all of this?' and the other half wants to shout "Oy! What're you looking at, you deviant?"

All par for the course, though, until we notice this blind guy, begging. He's standing on the corner of Southampton Street with his stick and dark glasses and tin cup. And I swear to God that as the girls sashay past him his jaw drops, his head spins round, and he ogles them all the way down the Strand. I had to hold Gina up, she was laughing so much.

I didn't put any money in the tin cup though, and now I feel guilty because that was the best bit of entertainment I had all weekend. Certainly the cheapest.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cover proofs

Cover proofs arrived a couple of days ago, and I'm very pleased with them. Definitely the best yet. Collectors may see one coming up for auction soon. I've been trying to photograph them in a way that demonstrates the hot foiling - the red bits in these pics. Not having much success, though. Time I invested in a new camera, or borrowed one of my kids' mobile phones, which nowadays seem to produce better pictures than anything I possess.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Winter Wood - updates

*LATEST*: The new US edition of The Various is now available. Go to HOME.

Winter Wood hardback release - January 3rd 2008

New edition, repackaged as 'The Touchstone Trilogy' - Early 2009.

Any changes to this, I'll let you know,

Sunday, June 24, 2007

News from the Front.

At time of writing, my wife, daughters, and sisters - along with assorted nephews and nieces - are battling it out on the Western Front: Glastonbury 2007. A particularly brutal and muddy campaign, so I gather from dispatches, with a body count that doesn't bear thinking about. They're currently bivouacked somewhere south of Healing Fields, and planning a combined assault on the cider tent come nightfall, from whence they hope to strike out for the central arena once regrouped. Slow going, as each stage can only be reached by bog-snorkelling, and that under heavy fire from the dunny carts. Little chance of keeping your powder dry under such conditions - not that I advocate drug-taking in any case.

Ah me, I wish them well. I'd be there with them of course if I wasn't already de-commissioned. (Old head wound, Isle of Wight campaign, 1970.) Meanwhile I can only pace the battlements of Augarde Court, glass of port in one hand and a half-Corona in the other, anxiously awaiting further news. I've some smoked haddock in the pantry, and am planning to whiz up a kedgeree for our brave heroes on their return.

Friday, June 15, 2007

In loco parentis

Giving a child a book that you've never read yourself means taking quite a lot on trust. What might lie between those covers? Sure, the book will have gone through an editorial process, and so as a parent you can reasonably expect the content to be 'suitable' - whatever that may mean. Nevertheless a child with a book is effectively a child in the company of a stranger, and an adult stranger at that.

I am that adult stranger (on occasion) and I feel the responsibility. Children are susceptible. As an audience they're relatively easy to scare, manipulate, and indoctrinate. I feel that children's fiction writers therefore have to be particularly conscious and careful of what they say.

At one level this can simply mean censorship of dialogue. I'm under no illusions. I have children of my own, I've worked in schools and am around kids generally - but there's no way that my characters can be allowed to use the actual language of the playground. Parents wouldn't stand for it, nor would teachers, librarians or editors for that matter. Is this right, though? Shouldn't I be arguing for licence to reflect what is? No, I don't think so. Language is our precious gift. The ability to properly communicate across class creed and culture is essential to our future. I should be attempting to promote a higher standard rather than weakly mirror a low one.

The fact that I don't live up to my own ideals should not be taken as evidence of hypocrisy. Not a bit of it. I'm a pretty good cusser when I want to be, but there's a difference between giving the odd sentence a bit of a tickle and consistently bludgeoning each one into the ground. I keep the volume to a minimum - and down to absolute zero if there are kids around. Bad language should be regarded as bad. That's what makes it so good.

So I have to watch my tongue. I also have to be careful in other areas: religion, politics, sexuality. When you give your child over to me for a couple of days you want to be confident that he isn't going to return as your moral equivalent of a werewolf. If he's been brought up a staunch Protestant, you might be alarmed to find him well on the road to Catholicism. If he's been taught to believe in the sanctity of heterosexual marriage you won't thank me if he now wants to go and live with Uncle Joe and Auntie Nigel. Then there are the 'scenes of a violent nature' to consider. What if your formerly robust and cheerful child is handed back to you a pale and gibbering wreck, haunted by his own shadow? It's no easy dance, I tell you, to be continually on the lookout for issues that might cause pain or affront, and to get the balance right between the deliciously scary and the downright horrific. Well, I can only try. But perhaps I've an overinflated sense of my own power to influence. I'm only in loco parentis after all - just a glorified babysitter. Yes, that's me: the babysitter. Mmwah...ha...ha...ha...

Thursday, May 31, 2007


I've been cavalier with artwork over the years - once it's been scanned and printed I'm careless about looking after the originals. They seem to get lost or dumped in house moves, and I don't suppose I possess a tenth of what I've actually produced. It doesn't seem particularly precious, and I can always look at it in what I consider to be its final form - the books or adverts or whatever it was intended for.

I do wish I'd kept a few roughs however. These are the drawings that nobody ever sees, ideas in their first stages, sometimes to be developed into the final piece but more often slung into the bin. It's always very difficult to retain the freshness and life of a rough drawing when working it up into a more polished state. Something gets lost in the transition somehow. I probably shouldn't say it publicly, but I almost like the first little sketch for the Winter Wood cover better than the finished article.

Working on a recent book about Leonardo da Vinci, I found that his thumbnail drawings of tanks and helicopters and parachutes gave far more insight into his genius and inventiveness than the great commissioned works. It's amazing that such doodles have survived, but how many more must have been thrown away? Maybe some enterprising apprentice kept a few of them and we'll someday discover that Leonardo invented the mobile phone and the X Box along with everything else.


Currently working on the interior scraperboard pix for Winter Wood. This one will be the frontispiece.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Doing the unnecessary, with love.

I was standing in a pub one day (quelle surprise) and a man came and stood next to me as he ordered up his pint. I couldn't help noticing that he was a Morris dancer. The daft floral hat gave it away - that and the white socks, pig's bladder, ribbons and bells. Not much gets past me.

Most of his costume could have been slung together from the average household wardrobe, particularly if that household contained a few women devoid of any dress sense, but I was quite impressed by the bells. They were mounted about his calves on straps of tooled red leather, all very polished and professionally done, so that I began to wonder if these had been bought new. It occurred to me that there might actually be a little factory somewhere, dedicated to supplying Morris dancers' regalia. Perhaps there was a specialist catalogue for this kind of thing: 'Come to Jolly Rumbelows - for all your Morris man needs'.

It seems unlikely. Far more probable is that hours of time and trouble had been spent sourcing the right kind of bells - from Lapland perhaps - and maybe even taking a class in leatherwork. I imagined this fellow working long hours into the night in order to get his post-pagan symbolism just so. Doing the unnecessary with love.

I'm quoting the phrase from an artist called Sam Smith, a wonderful illustrator and constructor of beautifully pointless automata - a tiger sitting in a rowing boat was one of his that I particularly liked. 'It seems to me worthwhile' he said 'to do the unnecessary with love'. Not a bad way to carry on.

The photograph above is of a dung cart. I took it thinking that I might use it as reference for an illustration, but haven't done so to date. Despite its humble purpose there is still evidence here of the cartwright's skill - the bracketed lades, the quietly elegant curves, the chamfering and decorative paintwork to the axle beam. None of it strictly necessary for a dung cart, but all the more worthwhile for that.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Public transport

This is a lovely little image, I think. It comes from the Port Eliot Litfest website. I should find out who did it.

Books as a form of transport is so right. Get down to your local bookshop or library and hop on the next plane out of here.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Work in progress 2

Much tweaking later, and I think I'm finally done on the cover for Winter Wood. The red shown here - sun and leaves - will be hot foiled so that it complements the silver and gold foiling of the first two books.

Next job will probably be the black and white interior pics, although I still have a fair bit of editing to do on the text.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Work in progress

I'm currently messing around with the cover for Winter Wood.

Messing around? It has to be done by next Tuesday (10th), so there goes Easter.
I've got the black and white artwork more or less done though - as posted here - so I can probably get colour sorted out over the next 48 hours.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Ignorance gives us permission to have a go at things that wiser people might avoid. Tackling bank robbers, taming tigers, raising a family - all pretty much on a par in terms of risk and likely outcome. I'd say that writing a trilogy falls into this category. If I'd truly understood what was going to be involved, then I'd probably have been too daunted to make a start.

Six years is a big chunk of your life to give over to a project where the final result is so murky. But there. I suppose the nature and attraction of any voyage of discovery lies in not knowing quite where you'll wind up.

When I was about ten years old our dad told us he was going to build a house. We lived on a council estate then, and the only way that we could ever afford a home of our own was if Dad was to build one. He knew absolutely nothing about building, but he was going to have a go. So he bought a piece of land off a local farmer, asked an architect friend who lived in the village to draw up some plans, got the necessary permission, and made a start.

My dad began by fencing off the land with concrete posts. I remember 'helping' him to put in that very first post, watching him clear away the vicious brambles with a billhook and then attempt to dig down into in the root-tangled earth with a spade. A morning of sweat and blood it took, just to get that one post in. The thing must have weighed half a ton. I began to see that it might be a while before we had a house.

There was no mains drainage originally, so the next job was to dig out a cess pit. A deep scary cavern of a place it was too, brick lined, and with heavy stoneware pipes laid up through the ground to the proposed dwelling. We never needed a cess pit as it turned out, the council bringing drainage to that part of the village before the house was completed. About a month of wasted effort, then.

Dad had no machinery and no help. He dug out all the footings with a pickaxe and shovel, mixed the concrete by hand, and barrowed it across wooden planks to tip into the maze of foundations. Backbreaking stuff. The work was all done in the evenings and at weekends, summer and winter round. I was away at boarding school, and so I saw the house go up by stages, always a bit more done than the last time I was at home. Sometimes I'd go down to 'the ground' and visit Dad with a flask of tea, creep up on him unawares and hear him talking away to himself all alone in that field. It was very strange, listening to him say things that seemed so entirely disconnected to the activity that he was involved in. I catch myself at the same game now, of course.

Bricks were bought as and when could be afforded, doors and windows came from wherever Dad could find them, plumbing, roofing and electrical work picked up somewhere along the way. He was employed as a fitter in Westlands in those days, the huge West Country helicopter factory, and as the house grew you could see that there was definitely a 50s industrial look to it - metal framed windows, glass panelled inner doors that smacked somehow of offices and storerooms. We asked no questions, and the buildings inspectors who regularly came by to see that he was doing the job properly never had anything but praise for his inventiveness within the bounds of building regulations. They took a personal interest in him, the mad bugger, and were always more inclined to encourage than criticise.

I was nine or ten years old when Dad began the house and I was fifteen or so when he finished it. Getting on for six years. And even when we moved in we were still using bags of cement for furniture.

It damn near killed him, I know. And I heard him say many times that if he'd realised in advance how hard it would be he would never have started. But he built us a home - something he would not have achieved if he'd been more timid or circumspect. He lived there for forty years, and saw his grandchildren live there too. More importantly he planted the notion that whatever you wanted to do you always had permission to try. Lack of experience was no barrier, ignorance might even turn out to be an advantage.

Six years gone, then, working on these three books, and I've nothing as substantial as a house to show for it. What I do have, at least, is a capacity for sustained effort, something that can only be proved in the testing. I suspect that in my case it's inherited - if not by genes then by example. Cheers, Dad.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Writing the last sentence of a novel is an amazing feeling. To have finally got God, it's something.

This is a huge day for me, because I haven't just reached the end of a novel, I've reached the end of a trilogy. Six years work, very nearly, from start to finish. OK, so the manuscript I've just sent off is technically only a first draft, and I still have the cover illustration and interior pics to do so the book isn't going to be off my hands for a while yet. But first drafts for me are pretty well the finished thing. I'm not anticipating any major changes. And the illustrations shouldn't present too many problems.

OK. That's it. I'm off down the pub.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Man flu: update

Good news. I lived.

Now, of course, all others around me are losing their heads and blaming it on me.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

'Man flu'

Man flu is a ghastly and most debilitating ailment, and bears no resemblance to the kind of flu that women get. It's certainly not a 'bit of a sniffle' - a phrase that I've heard being unkindly bandied about in our house.

I would say it's more like malaria. That same feeling of one's bones being slowly crushed from within...the uncontrollable chattering of the teeth...the raging thirst for liquid...any liquid. (Although tea for preference. And maybe a digestive biscuit to go with it, but only if you happen to be passing the Co-op on your way home from work.)

Horses used to get something similar, I believe, or perhaps I'm thinking of cattle. It was known as 'the staggers'. Or was it 'the botts'? I'm so delirious I can't remember, but I do know that they usually died of it and I'm hardly surprised. This would definitely kill a horse, what I've got.

They found a cure for horse flu but nothing for man flu, as yet, so we must take whatever comfort we can. My Dad used to swear by the 'whiskey and hat' method for treating the condition. It's one of those simple old country remedies that seem to have gone by the by, along with ducking-stools and blood-letting. You get yourself a bottle of whiskey and sit yourself up in bed with it, having first hung your hat on the bedpost. Any class of hat will do, but take Irish whiskey for medicinal choice. Then you drink the whiskey and stare at the hat.

Just keep on doing that...sipping at the medicine and watching the hat. Eventually, if you look closely, you'll see that there are actually two hats. Maybe more.

At this point, stop. Put down the medicine bottle and go to sleep. When you next awake you'll be cured - or cured of man flu at any rate. I gather there may be some residual side effects, but I can't say what these might be as I've never tried it. Whiskey makes me gip.

Ah me. I wonder if the priest is still awake. Maybe I ought to get him to pop round. I had to miss my Wednesday night game of snooker this week, and that's serious. But there. I don't suppose there's much he can do for me now.

No, quiet fortitude is the only way through man flu, and so it's aptly named in that respect. We don't complain.

More weird collector stuff

Online writer friend Robin Slick (see 'writer' links) has been showing me how to do the Amazon associate thing - it's that piece of flash gittery down on the left there, with all the book jackets. I'm in two minds about it. Selling books is good, but not at the expense of the small independents.

However, some of those displayed on the left are actually independents who've linked through Amazon themselves, so perhaps I shouldn't feel too bad.

The title that caught my eye as I was wrestling with the html was 'We're Going On An Airplane', one of my pop-up books. Best price £39.67, it says. Seems a bit expensive, I thought. But when I click on the link I see that used copies of this book are priced at up to £156.48. I could find no easily available information as to why this should be. What's going on? Are those crazy collector type people branching out in another direction or is this just a spolling mistook?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Introducing the book

This is a hoot. I don't seem to be able to get it up as a direct link, but copy the URL and take a look if you've ever been trampled down by the march of technology. Very funny.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Elephant Fayre

Twenty five years ago, maybe a bit more, I did a couple of summer seasons as 'musical director' of a touring theatre company called Atlantic Union. It sounds quite grand put like that.

Atlantic Union was actually one of many 'experimental' theatre companies that burgeoned in the late seventies, run on a shoestring, artistically dodgy, and grubbing for whatever gigs were available. Here today, disbanded tomorrow. We toured the hippie fairs - Wrexham, Hood Fair, Narberth, Elephant Fayre - did the show and moved on to the next muddy field. We were based in Wales, and so some of the fields were very muddy indeed.

The company was directed by a guy called Pete Brooks. Pete was a great cook, and his idea for Atlantic Union was to run it as a touring restaurant-cum-cabaret. Not for us the impromptu performance on a couple of shabby gym mats. We were to carry a full marquee with tables and chairs and gingham tablecloths, portable ovens, proper place settings, the lot. God knows how Pete ever raised the sponsorship, or got it organised, but he did.

And it worked, sort of. We had a big old Merc van, that classic touring theatre prop, with the marquee poles strapped to the top, a list of venues lined up, and a tank full of diesel. The first summer was enough of a success for the floating company members to be persuaded to come back next year and give it another go. Second time around I enlisted different musicians - old mates of mine Richard Madelin and Pete Bendall - along with a percussionist whom we only ever knew as Cyrus.

The best stories of that time can't really be repeated in a blog that children might visit, but I can reveal that the band were a sodding liability. I doubt there was a single date where we didn't have to be dragged from some bar or other in order to come and play. We were supposed to be accompanying the floorshow, providing the background music to a performance that never made the slightest sense to us. You know the type of thing - three girls in leotards being the sea, whilst somebody else stands on one leg and chants the word 'turpentine' over and over. We took a sceptical view, unfairly perhaps, of conceptual art. Emperors' clothes and all that.

But we got to do sets by ourselves, just the band, and so that was fun. My favourite of all the venues we played was Elephant Fayre. This was set deep in the West Country, far from the quagmires of Wales, an event that had been growing for some years and which attracted some fairly big names. I think Siouxie and the Banshees were headlining the year we were there. Heathcote Williams was reading. Lol Coxhill, I remember, came and sat in with us for a set on soprano sax. It was a wonderful atmosphere, although a diet of hedge-clipping soup and donkey turds on a stick got to Richard and I after a while, and we had to keep escaping into the surrounding villages for cream teas and sanity.

Elephant Fayre grew too big to be sustainable, alas. There was trouble policing the event, and a year or two later it had to be shut down. A shame, because the setting and the vibe were wonderful, a real summer music festival in its heyday.

Twenty five years on, when a writer friend, Charlie Shields, told me about the Port Eliot LitFest, a few bells started to ring. There was something familiar about the name and the locality - St. Germans, in Cornwall. But it wasn't until I spoke to the organisers and got myself invited that I realised that this country estate was the original site of the old Elephant Fayre. The beast had risen again, reborn as a literary version of its former self, but still retaining the musicality of its origins. Brilliant.

The feel of the Port Eliot LitFest is young and lively, as it should be, but there are still plenty of old hands attending who remember it first time around. I'm very glad to be there again. (I'm very glad to be anywhere at all, of course.)

Friday, February 02, 2007

Port Eliot LitFest

This is the first of what may be several plugs for the Port Eliot LitFest. I've weaselled my way into this marvellous book festival for the second year running, and am already looking forward to it.(Actually I think they're quite glad to have me - they say they're going to be quoting me on this year's promotional literature, banging on about how brilliant the whole thing is.) I've put a permanent link up, under 'Events'.

For three days each summer the Port Eliot Litfest takes over the huge private estate of the Earl of St. Germans, down in Cornwall. Port Eliot House is your classic, slightly crumbly stately home, set in God knows how many acres of countryside - woods, lakes, walled gardens, the works. It's all very beautiful, and would likely make you want to attack the current Earl of St. Germans with a jealous-stick if he wasn't putting the place to such good purpose. What better use for the house and grounds than to turn it into a haven for the arts and to open it up for such a cracking summer festival? The good Earl is very much involved, too, and if you need a lift from one venue to another it's quite likely to be he who picks you up on his quad bike and ferries you there - your head going up and down like a cocktail shaker, your carefully written notes leaving a paper trail behind you. Noblesse oblige, what?

'Glastonbury for Books' is how the LitFest is often described, and though that's a bit misleading there's certainly a come-of-age-hippie feel about the whole thing. Lots of brightly coloured food stalls, cabaret marquees, fields full of tents, music, poetry, barefoot kids - and books. It's great.

Last year I did a couple of spots - the first a paper-engineering workshop, and the second a talk on writing for children. The latter was mostly geared towards people who were themselves interested in trying to break into children's book publishing. Difficult to know how long one can talk on any given subject, but in my case it would usually be about two minutes, so I was slightly daunted by the forty minute slot that I was given. About an hour and a half later festival organiser Rick Worthy had to more or less drag me out of the marquee, and stick me under a tree where I carried on yakking to anyone who'd listen.

Cornwall is a long way from Yorkshire, but I still managed to bump into a couple of old friends down there - people I hadn't seen for years. I wasn't entirely surprised, perhaps because Port Eliot would be such a magnet for the like-minded. My big mistake was falling in with boogie-woogie man Diz Watson - a great musician. We'd known each other vaguely through a mutual friend, writer and guitarist Richard Madelin, but had never really spent much time together. This weekend we did, drinking sack and carousing into the small hours in the exact way that doctors advise middle-aged men not to.

Port Eliot has some other resonances for me though, from a much earlier time, and maybe I'll put those in a future post.

This year's festival runs from 20-22 of July.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Virtual pain

I came back from a trip to Paris last week to find my computer fried. Everything gone, blank screen, nightmare. Since then I've had two new motherboards fitted, plus a new power supply and new hard drive in an attempt to bring the thing back to life. At last the problem has been resolved, and tonight I come limping back into e world a sadder and somewhat reduced man.

All my email addresses have gone, and all record of emails sent. Ever. This is the ethernet equivalent of being washed up on some rocky shore with no recollection of a former life. To all friends, readers, collectors, and independent booksellers who have been in touch with me over the last couple of years: PLEASE EMAIL ME,( so that I can begin to rebuild my address book. Seriously, do it. Thank you.

In the meantime I begin sifting through the wreckage of formats and programmes, thankful that this is, after all, only virtual pain.

Friday, January 12, 2007


Anybody got any ideas? I need about another three copies of myself. Workload is scary at the moment, but like any other freelancer, I never seem to learn how to say no.

Winter Wood needs about another six weeks on the writing. I could also do with six weeks in order to produce the cover artwork and interior illustrations. Then, as of today, I should be working on the history book previously mentioned: Leonardo da Vinci. (Which is going to be good, I think. Went down to London yesterday and had a very useful meeting with the editors.)That could be another month or two of solid writing.

So those are the three most pressing projects. Then there are two others that are lurking round the corner and likely to jump out and bite me at any minute: the comic strip, and the board-book version of Tractor factory.

The problem is that all these things are supposed to happening at exactly the same time. Eek. As we say in the trade.