Friday, December 19, 2008

A Capella

A thread in another office reminded me of how much I love a capella singing. Spike Lee made a wonderful TV tribute film some years ago, called Spike Lee and Company do it A Capella. I thought I'd put up a couple of clips, if only as respite from all the awful Christmas crap that's flying around.

These are the Mint Juleps, with Your Love Keeps Lifting me Higher.

And just to show that I don't believe the devil has all the best tunes: Take Six, with Get Away Jordan and Something Within Me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Clic the pic

A cold, wet, wintry, Monday morning. I thought I'd post this sunny scene, just to brighten the place up a bit. It's an illustration I did years ago as part of an ad campaign for what was then the Great Mills DIY chain. Don't know what happened to them. I'm still here.

The above illustration was an early exploration of scraperboard technique. The ad agency in question would look through sample illustration catalogues, find a style that they liked, and then call me in. I don't think I'd ever properly used scraperboard prior to this commission.

Click on the picture to get a closer view.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Leonardo da Vinci

Coming soon, to a bookshop near you...

Actually that's a lie. It'll be some months before this book becomes available, but I couldn't resist giving readers a quick glimpse of the cover proof.

I've just returned from a week in the West Country, and so it was a nice surprise to find this waiting for me. The book takes the form of a diary, written by one of Leonardo's young apprentices. It's the second in a series that began with Adele Geras' Cleopatra

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tractor Factory

Here's a new US edition of Tractor Factory, delivered to me this very day. How pretty it looks. I've added a bit of tinsel to the background, in that spirit of seasonal jollity for which I am of course famous.

Tractor Factory has been in print for almost fifteen years now, a fact that's both scary and uplifting. It's great that so many children continue to find pleasure in this, the very first pop-up book that I ever produced. But where have those fifteen years gone? And will the next fifteen whizz by at the same bewildering rate? Crivvens!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bombing in Coventry?

The Gents are playing near Coventry in a couple of months time. Here's one of the flyers. Good, eh? I might treat myself to a new set of double bass strings for Christmas.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Mr Tibbs

A number of readers have asked after Mr. Tibbs, our giraffe-necked cat. I'm not sure whether this is out of curiosity or concern, but I thought I'd put up this pic anyway.

He's a furry fellow, is Mr Tibbs, which makes it difficult to count the rings, but there are actually thirteen. Doing well. We work in cat years, so he gets a new one every couple of months.

It's all done in accordance with Mr. Tibbs' wishes and cultural beliefs, although I suspect there's an element of bling here. He doesn't like to be outshone by the ladies.

I must stress that on no account should you try this at home. Very few cats have the temperament for the giraffe-necked way of life, and the ring fitting process itself can be tricky. It requires proper training, and quite sophisticated pipe bending equipment. Also, the cat has to keep very still during fittings. Mr Tibbs was more or less born with his head in a vise, and so he's used to it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Watch With Mother

Utterly convincing and very funny sketch from Jane Horrocks. It's a spoof on the 1950s children's TV programmes 'Watch With Mother', which I mentioned in the previous post.

What becomes apparent, on repeat viewings, is the flawlessness of Jane Horrocks' performance. Every little action and inflection and nuance is quite perfect. She remains true to the originals by filming 'live', with no cutaways. The picture of the cake has been inserted into what I suspect was one continuous take. Good actress, to say the least.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Things once common, now extinct. No. 7: The Interlude.

Nowadays the phrase 'nothing on the telly' simply means that there's nothing that interests you specifically. There will of course be a million things to choose from, 24/7. But at one time 'nothing on the telly' meant that there really was nothing. Zippo. Zilch. Daytime television didn't exist. Programmes began with 'Watch With Mother', at around 4.30, and ended with 'The Epilogue' at The only entertainment available beyond that hour was a bottle of Wincarnis and a Woodbine.

But even when the nightly extravaganza began, the programmes weren't continuous. There were a lot of comfort breaks, as it were, where nothing at all happened and the screen went completely blank. I suppose they had to allow time for the next set of puppets to be untangled, or for somebody to run round to Malcolm Muggeridge's house and wake him up.

Canny programmers knew that once their audience got up from their chairs they could be exposed to other attractions - the lure of the allotment, the siren call of the fretsaw - and then they'd be lost for the evening. How to keep them engaged?

They hit upon a brilliant idea: The Interlude. These little films were slotted in between the main programmes, the intention being to simply keep something on screen. It didn't matter what - a kitten playing with a ball of wool, a potter at his wheel, a plank warping.

I liked the Interludes, and I wish we had more of them now. The Interlude allows time for reflection. It offers both a window to gaze out of and a chance to look inward, an opportunity to wonder about all manner of things - like why am I wasting my life on this crap? Television has a moral duty to remind us of how awful it actually is, how it can never be a substitute for digging up carrots, or chewing on a twig. The Interlude served that purpose very well.

Here's my absolute banging favourite: 'The Spinning Wheel'. Watch this and be amazed at how energised your brain becomes, how quickly you can think of something better to do.

The Spinning Wheel

Friday, October 31, 2008

En Fartsfylt Sprett-Opp-Bok!

Amazing what turns up in the post when you're least expecting it. This is my complimentary copy of a new edition of Vroom! Vroom! It's apparently Norwegian, but I've tried using an online dictionary and none of the words seem to translate. The text from the back cover states that it's 'for alle bilgale fartsfantomers'.

Fartsfantomers? Well...have fun, guys...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Spot the difference

On an afternoon when I can't seem to settle down to any writing, I've been Googling instead. A wasteful and self indulgent pastime if ever there was one.

My meanderings have turned up two secondhand copies of a little book I did, back in the days when I was more into pop-up than writing. At first glance you'd think these copies were the same, but no. The one on the left is the English printing - note the spelling of the word 'colours' - and the one on the right is the US version. The one on the right is yours for £2.17. But the one on the left will cost you £128.95. I have no idea why this should be.

That's the kind of stuff you don't learn when you should be working.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Les VariƩ?

My editor called me on Friday to say that the French rights to the Touchstone Trilogy have just been sold. This is excellent news, and something I wasn't expecting so long after the original publication of The Various. Perhaps nos amis have been waiting to see how the story turned out before committing to buying it.

As with the German versions, it's difficult for me to imagine how certain parts of these books would translate. The heavy West Country dialect must be a challenge. Are there French and German equivalents I wonder? I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Man Flu III

I've posted about Man Flu before, but what do I care? If I've got to suffer a repeat of the actual complaint, then I think it only fair that others should suffer a repeat of my complaining.

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, my dear.)

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 the Sunday night quiz this week, and that's serious. But there. I don't suppose there's much a priest 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 bear our troubles in silence, we men.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Shin Kicking. 'If it ain't broke, you're not kicking hard enough.'

This is one of the reasons I had to leave the West Country; that damn kicking practice every Sunday morning. Couldn't hack it.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bump the elephant ringtone!

A recent visit to You Tube shows that this little TV programme that I did the artwork and music for so many years ago has had over 100,000 visits. You can even find a clip of some young gun playing along with the guitar outro. What has happened, I suppose, is that the generation of tots who loved Bump in the early nineties have now become part of the YouTube and Facebook generation. Nostalgia at eighteen, though? Seems a bit premature to me. I'm very happy that the little fellow is still remembered, of course - he was a big part of my life for two or three years back there.

And now there's a Bump the Elephant ringtone available. How uber-cool is that?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Goodies from America.

Lots of neat stuff in the post this morning...

First up are cover proofs for the US paperback editions of The Various and Celandine. Looking good, I think.

Then we have a couple of ARCs of Winter Wood. ARCs are advance reader copies. These are printed up in a very small quantity to send out to professional readers prior to publication. The idea is to get some external feedback before the book goes into its actual print run.

As you can see, these are not for sale. Rarity value means that book collectors are quite keen on them.

Next is a dustjacket proof for the US hardback edition of Winter Wood. A jacket proof is sent out to the author for approval. It's more or less a courtesy. I don't think the publishers would be best pleased if I wanted anything changed at this late stage!

And finally a trio of cover proofs for the UK paperback edition of Winter Wood, due out very soon. As you can see these have no price code yet, and so once again they have some rarity value.

Nice to get it all arriving at once, and in different packages. Made me feel quite as though it was my birthday - which actually it is. Happy Birthday, me.

Ivor Cutler. Lest we forget...

The great Ivor. He needs taking out and dusting once in a while.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Was ist dies?

I've always thought my German was rather limited. Sure, I have the odd phrase (see title of this post), and can wave my arms around with the best of 'em, generally make myself understood. But my written German lacks depth, nuance, elegance - know what I mean? So it comes as a surprise to find that I've apparently managed to produce a book on German social law for the assistance of children and young folk. See below.

You don't believe me? Then here's the

I suppose I must have knocked out Sozialgesetzbuch VIII in my sleep, along with its seven companion volumes, and simply been too preoccupied with more important things to have remembered much about it. A bit like eating chocolate biscuits, perhaps, but in reverse.

I'm quite pleased with the look of this, though. It has an air of quiet authority that I mean to try and live up to. Next time somebody asks me if I'm off down the Hand and Racket for a game of skittles I shall say no, or at least not for another half hour or so. I have Sozialgesetzbuch IX to write yet.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Modern technology

A thread regarding e-books on another blog prompted me to give this very funny short another airing.

I've posted the URL before, but didn't know how to live-link it in those days. Now, rather aptly, I've caught up with the technology.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The end of the world is nigh.

Come Wednesday they'll be switching on that infernal machine over in Geneva, and we'll all be sucked into a big black hole.

I intend to go out in style and so I've hired the Sheila's Wheels girls to drive me into the abyss whilst I sit in the back seat drinking Timothy Taylor's bitter.

If the world doesn't come to an end after all, then I want the advertising accounts of both companies. Work of this quality doesn't come for free, you know.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Phillip Pullman's address

I was driving down to Somerset last weekend, off to play at a wedding, when this speedy vehicle overtook us.

"Blimey," I said to my wife, "Phillip must be doing well if he needs a special van to deliver his advances."

On a more serious note, here's Mr. Pullman's address on the current situation with the 'No To Age Banding' campaign: Phillip Pullman’s address.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The creative life

A conversation in the pub last night reminded me of this old thespian joke.

First actor: 'Are you working at the moment?'

Second actor: 'Actually, I've decided to take time out to write a book.'

First actor: 'No, nor am I.'

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Touchstone Trilogy : US edition.

Woo-hoo! Now available in the States. The other two titles are due to follow fairly soon, I believe. Will add more details later.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

For no good reason...

...other than the fact that I'm awake at four am, and filling the time with anything but useful activity, here are some pretty pictures.

These were sent to me by Mark Kelly, who designed my website. They come from the blog of one Phil Beard.

Aren't they beautiful?

Friday, July 25, 2008


In the village where I used to live there also lived a dog. The dog was small and white, and it sat all day behind a white-painted cottage window in which hung a pair of white net curtains. It was a dog well camouflaged.

Whenever I walked past the window the dog barked at me. That was its trick - to wait until the last second, and then hurl itself at the pane, yapping furiously, claws scrabbling at the glass, its mouth at just about ear level. I would leap off the pavement in fright, cursing the thing, and then forget all about it until the next time. The dog never tired of the joke, and I never remembered the punchline until it was too late.

One weekend my next door neighbour, a Navy man, phoned to ask a favour of me. He was unexpectedly detained on duty for another twenty-four hours. Would I feed his dog and take it for a walk? No big deal, except that the dog in question was a Staffordshire bull terrier. These creatures get a bad press - highly territorial, apt to take offence at any chance remark, and not inclined to let go of you once they've decided to grab a hold. A gin-trap, basically, with a leg at each corner. I gather that there may be a release mechanism of sorts located beneath the tail, but I wouldn't care to tinker with it.

So my neighbour's assurance that I should just let myself into his house, act confident, and put a choke chain on the beast was a bit worrying. It was a mystery to me as to why anyone should want to own such a dog. Still, I could hardly refuse to help, and so I said OK. I quickly wrote out a will, left it on our kitchen table, and went next door.

The Staffie was as good as gold. It seemed pleased to meet me, allowed me to feed it a few of the local toddlers, and made no objection when I put the heavy steel chain around its neck to go walkies.

It's a curious thing to be strolling down the street with fifty pounds of fighting dog on the end of a leash. I felt as though I should roll up the sleeve of my T shirt and stick a pack of Marlboros in there, or something. Chew a bit of gum. Learn to spit properly.

As we passed the white cottage window, I remembered too late about its yappy occupant. But you know what? A very noticeable change had come over that little dog. It didn't seem at all keen to perform its trick, but instead sat there like a china statuette of itself, mute and motionless, its mouth firmly shut, eyes apparently fixed upon some interesting aspect of the pub sign opposite.

The little white dog was still sitting there on the return journey, still gazing innocently into space, still no word to say for itself as I walked past with my new best friend. In fact that dog never gave me any of its lip from that day on. So this is power, I thought. This is respect, as accorded to the mighty. Now I get it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Amazon self publishing

If you've ever thought of writing a book, making a film, producing your own music, here's an interesting scheme. You can now self publish on Amazon, at virtually no cost. Amazon CreateSpace

I see a kind of double irony here, in that what many will dismiss as vanity publishing might actually be of most benefit to established authors, and that the very mainstream that helped establish those authors is what makes it possible for them to use - or even switch - to this system.

For those authors who already have a presence on Amazon, thanks to success in the mainstream, it would be relatively easy to add an extra title or two to any existing list. Past promotion will have given such writers a profile, they get Googled, there's a ready and waiting market for their work. A 30% royalty is likely to be a lot higher than any publishing house can offer them, so what's to lose?

Standards, possibly. More bookshops probably. But there could be gains as well, and not just in fiscal terms. I've spent a working lifetime in children's publishing, and have survived by writing and illustrating to a 'market', always going for the idea that seems most commercial, always thinking in terms of the broadest appeal, always producing material that I hope will work in translation. No apologies for that, but this scheme provides an opportunity to be a little more experimental, and adventurous. Poetry, for instance, is an area I'd never go anywhere near, likewise short stories, likewise local history. No mainstream publisher will buy material for which there is no broad market, and I can't afford to spend time on work that I'm unlikely to sell. But the Amazon scheme makes it tempting to try something a bit different. OK, there are no advances on offer, and there's still time and money involved in producing any piece of work - professional editing costs, for instance, should be factored in to any project - but I would certainly give this some thought.

For years we've been bemoaning the fact that publishing has narrowed, that commercialism rules, and that the bestseller lists are the be-all and end-all. Could it be that Amazon, of all institutions, will be responsible for a renaissance in specialist and limited appeal works, and actually end up enriching a culture that many have accused it of helping to destroy?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Doctor on Wheels

My friend Eddy says he saw a new kind of mobile trading van earlier this week: Doctor On Wheels. What a great idea. The van stops in lay-bys, apparently, so that busy motorists and truckers can get themselves a bit of treatment. I can see a whole new market opening up here - beaches, picnic areas, the car park outside B&Q.

Anyway, that’s it. I’ve decided to quit writing and illustrating and become a doctor on wheels instead. Already got my mobile surgery – a converted ice-cream van. See below.

Neat, eh? It plays the theme from ‘Doctor Finlay’s Casebook’ as I tootle along, and when I beep the horn it goes ‘Crash trolley! Crash trolley!’

I'm planning a special this week – Canesten cream with diazepam sprinkles and a flake. £47. Stop me and try one.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Hep Cat's Holiday

Every once in a while you stumble upon some self-contained and hidden world that you were previously unaware of. The land is peppered with clubs, associations, groups of enthusiasts and just plain nutters, whose activities are so weird and obscure that they either go unnoticed or are dismissed altogether.

I've met dowsers, twitchers, pitchfork rebels, Big Lebowskis, trekkies, ferret smugglers, avalanche dodgers, cheese rollers, witches and warlocks, members of the Sunbeam Talbot Alpine Register, and many book collectors of course - all of whom can pass for normal as they go about their daily business. But then you touch upon their other life. Some chance remark reveals their secret, and it's at that point you should get out, my dears. Walk away. Because if you're foolhardy enough to show even the merest spark of interest, you find yourself pinned against a wall by a gale of evangelistic fervour that's likely to take your ears off. Next thing you know, you've signed up for two years before the mast with the Captain Pugwash Appreciation Society.

That's kind of what happened to me last weekend. The Gents were booked to play at the Hep Cat’s Holiday, billed as three days and nights of dancing to music of the forties and fifties - the jive era. We were looking forward to it very much, and it didn't disappoint. Hosts Robert and Claire Austin put on a terrific show, with professional dance classes, retro clothing side stalls, a constant soundtrack of great music (courtesy of incredibly knowledgeable and well-stocked DJs) plus half a dozen top live bands. What made it work, though, was the enthusiasm and commitment of the punters. They came from all over Europe, bringing their unfeasibly flamboyant wardrobes and haircuts with them, and boy did they impress. Hats, shoes, skirts, suits, all pin-sharp and perfectly tailored - this was serious stuff. None of your dressing-up box schmutter here. They looked the business, and they could dance it too.

It was great fun to just watch and listen, and when we weren't playing we did plenty of that. Our slots were on the Sunday - the last day of the festival - and so we only caught a couple of the other bands. We particularly liked the Honolulu Hula Boys (as friendly a bunch of Italians as you could hope to meet) and sat out in the evening with them, passing the ukelele around and singing songs beneath the patio heaters. 'Paper Doll' and 'I'll See You In My Dreams' are two that I seem to recall.

Twenty four hours of it wasn't enough, and so next year I plan to be there for the whole weekend. Yes, I've rescinded my membership of the Tufty Club, and decided be a hep cat instead. Whether I shall be able to coax my ravaged frame into lindy-hopping with the best of them seems doubtful, but I'm happy to give it a go, and am already saving up for my first pair of two-tone penny loafers. That comes to tuppence, by my reckoning, and if the world of publishing is kind to me I should have enough by November.

Friday, June 27, 2008


It seemed astonishing to me, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, that I would actually be allowed to drive a tractor. And not just a quick turn about the yard, either, but driving one properly, out in the fields for hours at a time, doing real work for real money. I couldn't believe my luck.

Wise men, those local farmers. They knew that they could get a boy to shovel cow dung from dawn till dark if there was a chance that he'd be allowed to take the tractor out next day and spread the muck. Wiser still to know that a boy would sit on that iron seat in all weathers, a bit of sacking draped across his head and shoulders (no cabs in those days) and still glow with the privilege of being in charge of such a mighty machine.

Fordson Major! Massey Ferguson! I loved them then, and I love them still. The Fordson was the scarier of the two. It was a beast, blue with orange wheels, taller than a man, and before you could scale the heights of it and park your skinny ass on that great scalloped seat you had to get thing going. No joke, my dears, on a cold January morning, and the starting handle covered in slippery white rime. I was never a tough kid, nor a particularly brave one, and so it took some effort and commitment to swing that handle over - knowing that if the engine kicked back it could break your leg, let alone your wrist. But I was bright enough to take instruction, and always made sure I kept my puny thumb over the top of the handle rather than grasped around it. And then, when the engine coughed and choked into life, and the frozen yard was filled with its heavy pumping beat - always that clickety-clatter at the top end - well, it was music to me. And the fresh winter air smelled better than ever, somehow, mixed with diesel.

Then you clambered up the iron mountain, aware that you were out of scale with it all, the footrests just a little too high, seat too deep and broad, steering wheel too wide. Using the clutch was like using a footpump. The top of the gear lever felt as big as a baby's head beneath your hand. Out to the fields then, with a trailer load of beets for the cattle, or dung to spread, and the hope of a similar job when that was done. Hope, too, that you didn't tip the damn thing over on the steep slope of the pasture, because then you would surely die. Although on balance it might have been worth it. The very early Fordsons were notorious death traps, although the ones I knew were later models, and a slight improvement over this from Wikipedia:

"Prepare to Meet Thy God."
Not only was the Fordson a challenge to start and operate, but it also quickly developed a bad reputation for its propensity to rear up on its hind wheels and tip over, which proved disastrous - and sometimes fatal - for its operator.
Ford Motor Company largely ignored the issue for a number of years as criticism mounted. One farm magazine recommended that Ford paint a message on each Fordson: "Prepare to Meet Thy God." Still another listed the names of over 100 drivers killed or maimed when their Fordsons turned over.
It wasn't until much later that Ford finally took heed of the critics and made modifications, such as extended rear fenders dubbed "grousers" intended to stop the tractor from turning over in a tipping situation, and a pendulum-type "kill switch" to cut power to the engine in such instances.

But where the Fordsons were scary monsters, the Massey Fergusons were much more friendly, and a real joy to drive. Electric start! Two gear ratios! The so-called 'little grey Fergie' was as smart as a terrier, quick and intelligent, cheap to run. Harry Ferguson's revolutionary thinking meant that the TE20 didn't just haul things along, but also powered its many attachments. It didn't need the brute force of the Fordson in order to get the job done. Thanks to hydraulics, ploughs could be raised and lowered, making it possible to get right into the awkward corners of fields, and the onboard PTO shaft meant that baling machines and the like were powered by the tractor rather than the drive wheels of the machines themselves. When the TE20 was first introduced, Ferguson reps travelled the country demonstrating its innovative features to groups of admiring farmers who instantly took the wonderful little machine to their hearts. I know of no other single piece of equipment that had such a measurable effect on modern farming. Every farmer had one, and it was universally loved. I'd buy one now and keep it as a pet, if I had a big enough kennel.

Yes, and I'm only half joking. The Fordson Major and the little grey Fergie were standard kit in that part of Somerset I come from, and every boy I knew was fully conversant with both. They were holiday entertainment for some of us, a career gateway to others. As it turns out I've probably spent more hours drawing tractors than I ever did driving them. I'm still not entirely convinced as to which was the better choice.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jewish Uncles

Writer friend Robin Slick made me laugh recently when she said that nowadays Simon and Garfunkel looked like they could be her Jewish uncles - Uncle Mo and Uncle Schmo.

This morning's Guardian carries a feature on the lyrics of Bob Dylan, alongside a performance review of Leonard Cohen, currently touring the UK. Here are two more Jewish uncles, venerated and venerable, still both plying their schtick. It's interesting to see how they've all weathered the years.

I wasn't really aware, when I was young, that the great songwriting triumvirate of Dylan, Simon and Cohen happened to be Jewish. I don't think many young UK fans had the kind of radar to pick up on the fact, or that it would hold any significance for those that did. It seems no more than coincidence to me now, although questions of faith have often been prominent in their work. Cohen turned to Buddhism, Dylan became born again, with a fearful washed-in-the-blood-of-the-Lamb vengeance. Simon seems to remain as circumspect as ever whilst still namechecking God every once in a while.

Those of Jewish origin are as prevalent in UK arts and culture as in the States, but I don't know that Jewishness is something that we take much notice of over here. It came as a surprise to me to learn that Sgt. Bilko's character was intentionally Jewish, and that to Americans this was an important element of the humour. I just thought Phil Silvers was very funny. Likewise Lenny Bruce. I'm a few years too young to have been able to appreciate Lenny Bruce when he was at his peak, and this may be the reason I never saw his Jewishness as being central to his act. Again I just thought he was brilliant. Plus he swore a lot, much to my schoolboy delight. Jewish Americans have an underlying culture, rich and self-referencing, that doesn't exist in quite the same way over here.

Of the three aged uncles, Uncle Paul still holds the middle ground to my mind, bridging that gap between the often wilfully tossed-off scribblings of latterday Uncle Bob and the more precise and thoughtful haikus of Uncle Len. Simon is probably the most musically accomplished of the three, the most experimental in terms of exploring world rhythms and influences, and the most accessible in some ways. Yet he's difficult to feel close to. I don't know why. There's always been an air around Simon of someone admired rather than loved.

And then there's poor old Uncle Bob. Stick frail he's become, his pockets apparently empty of the pearls he once cast before us. It's hard to remember how funny he once was, especially in some of those early songs, '115th Dream' for example, where he couldn't even get past the first line for collapsing into helpless giggles. 'I was riding on the Mayflower, when I thought I spied some la-ha-ha-ha-nd...ha ha ha...start agin...' Not many laughs left in the guy nowadays, although I've enjoyed some of his radio shows.

It's Uncle Len who turns out to be the revelation. Once famous for writing songs to commit suicide by, he now seems as jolly as you like, cheerfully admitting that he's having to tour because his agent robbed him of $5 million whilst he was off being a Buddhist - which equanimity is a pretty good advert for Buddhism itself. I recently heard Cohen being interviewed by an utterly crass Radio 2 DJ, whose identity I won't give away, except to say that he's famously on 'in the afternoon'. It was a lesson in good humouredness under the most trying of circumstances. Plainly Mr. DJ had only the vaguest idea of whom he was talking to, giving every impression that he was working from a crib sheet hastily thrust into his hand just before the start of the programme. But Cohen came through it like a pro, affable and intelligent, ready to chuckle both at himself and the less than perfect world around him. Good old Uncle Len.

In fact, good on them all. Good old Uncle Paul, still crazy after all these years. Good old Uncle Bob, still a rolling stone. And good old Uncle Len, still my man. Oy.

Sunday, June 08, 2008


I'm hip to the jive (as everybody kno) and so I was delighted when The Gents were asked to play at Hep Cats Holiday this summer. It looks like so much fun that I rather wish I'd booked a chalet for the weekend, along with my fabulous dancing partner Gina de Gamage, (see above) but it's too late now. I suppose I'll have to make do with my old pal Mike Stand instead, who's a little on the skinny side for me, and not much of a mover.

The weekend's sold out, but it might be worth keeping an eye on the obituaries columns - some of these original hepsters are pushing their luck, not to mention their pacemakers.

In a flurry of other little gigs this summer, I've also signed up for a Glad Band reunion. This is currently pencilled in for Friday August 8th at Tiverton Cricket Club, where an old friend of ours has somehow managed to become chairman. I wonder how long he'll remain in that position, given what an appearance by the Glad Band usually entails. We first got together around 1969, so the acrimony runs to about the same depth as that of the Eagles. Not so the depth of pocket, unfortunately. The band started off with nine members, I think, and now we're down to four. We'll see who survives this latest round.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Age Banding

For those who might not be aware of it, children’s books are now to be ‘age banded’, ie each book will be prominently labelled with the age of readership for which the publisher intends it. 7+, 9+, and so on. Note that I say ‘publisher’, because I’ve yet to hear of any author, teacher, librarian, independent bookseller, or reader who thinks this a good idea. I suspect that it’s a scheme that has been hastily hatched between publishers and large chains, in a lazy and ill-advised attempt to boost sales.

Children have differing reading ages, and tastes, and no child of, say, 10 years old is going to want to be seen reading a book that has a label saying 7+ on it, no matter how much they might love that book or how appropriate it might be for their reading ability. Conversely a 7 year old who has been told that he has a reading age of 10 (and whose parents are certainly going to let people know it) may struggle with the content of a book labelled 10+ even though he is capable of reading it.

Some sort of guidance is both helpful and necessary, but surely books already speak clearly enough for themselves? How do we as adults choose what to read and what not to read? We study the cover, we read the blurb, maybe look at a few sentences from the text, and we listen to the recommendations of others. This same process is perfectly suited to children’s books. Age banding can only stigmatise developing readers and restrict the more confident.

Big name authors are refusing to have their books labelled in this manner, and have enough clout to be able to threaten publishers with revolt if such a scheme goes ahead. Fortunately their names head the list of the hundreds who are protesting against the practice. If you’re interested in adding your own, then go to:

No To Age Banding

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Signs I Have Loved

Every time I drive to Huddersfield, I see a sign that reads: 'This Is A Sign'.

Isn't that great? It's permanently placed outside a signmaker's shop, and as an advert for their services it's actually a bit dull - too small, and unobtrusive. I'd like to see it being used in a more surreal manner, posted on giant boards about the countryside, briefly visible from the motorway as you flash past in your car. 'Oh my God', you'd think, 'that was a sign...'

We saw something like this in France some years ago, billboards that loomed over hedges, saying 'BUT...'

'But... what?' we wondered. But... this is all a mirage?
But... the state is watching us and knows that we're not carrying one of those breakdown triangles like we're supposed to?
It was an advert of course, for some French beverage, 'but' being the imperative of 'boire', to drink. We knew that really, BUT...

A musician friend and I saw some great signs on a road trip in the States:
'Antiques 'n' Stuff'
'Chooky Chicken Steaks - over Three Dozen Sold!'
'Welcome to Hicksville, Home of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Weeny-burger!'
We think we saw a sign outside a funeral parlour that read 'Stiffs 'n' Stuff', but by that time we may have been hallucinating from lack of vegetables. Or too much tequila.

My brother in law says that he remembers there being a metal sign close to where he lived as a boy. It said 'Do Not Throw Stones At This Sign.' I mean, what are you going to do? Actually, this may well have been the brainchild of a local council with an unusually strong grasp of psychology. There's an argument for erecting such signs in every park, street, shopping mall and playground in the country. A stone being thrown at a metal sign is a stone not being thrown at some old lady's head, I say.

There's a sign on the M6, just outside of Birmingham, that I love. 'Floors To Go'. Probably the most redundant slogan ever. One of these days I'm going to pull over and visit that store.
'Good morning, Sir. Can I help?'
'Yes. I'd like forty square metres of parquet flooring, please. The antiqued birch.'
'Certainly Sir! And would that be to go?'
'Um...tell you what - no. Let's just lay it right here, shall we?' Feckwits.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Things once common, now extinct. No. 6: Wire coat hangers

This is quite scary. It can't be much more than a year ago that I was saying something about the breeding habits of wire coat hangers, and how if you put two of them together in a dark and confined space - a wardrobe for example - then the next time you opened the door there would be twenty of them.

And now they've gone. The entire species has been wiped out. I've been over the whole estate with the ghillie, and there isn't a single wire coat hanger to be found. I can only think that some terrible plague has descended upon the poor creatures when we weren't looking. Iron pyrites - is that a disease? Tin-worm is, for sure. I've owned several cars that were stricken with tin-worm, and it can be very nasty. But even tin-worm isn't that rapacious - I mean you don't get whole fleets of cars disappearing overnight because of it. (Though I must say I haven't noticed many Hertz adverts lately.)

I'm wondering if maybe the demise of the wire coat hanger isn't due to over-culling. They're easy game after all, very trusting, and every bit of them can be put to good use. Broken lavatory cistern? Wire coat-hanger. Makeshift hook for your Black and Decker hedge trimmer? Wire coat hanger.

Indoor TV aerial...haloes for the Nativity Play...blocked U bend....sculpture armature...Glastonbury bracelets...the wire coat hanger is the solution every time. Or rather it used to be. We've hunted them to extinction it seems, and now we must live with the consequences. Our own fault, as usual.

An alternative explanation, I suppose, is simply that the ubiquitous plastic coat hanger has driven our native species from its natural habitat. Maybe there's still an isolated colony of them on Brownsea Island, or somewhere. If anyone should happen to know of a breeding pair, I'd be grateful. I've got a loose exhaust pipe that needs wiring up. Also, I'm still not quite finished with Mr. Tibbs, our giraffe-necked cat.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


I'm driving up to Scotland next week, to Aberdeen and then Edinburgh, in order to give a series of talks and workshops. I think of myself as living in the 'north' already, and so was amazed to see from the map of Britain that I'm barely in the middle. In fact it's actually further from here to Aberdeen than it is to Cornwall. More of this later...

...which it now is. Yes, I'm off to Aberdeen Unversity for the run-up to the Word festival on Wed 7th and Thurs 8th May. I shall be holding two paper-engineering workshops for younger children, and offering my usual cast-iron guarantee that every child's little pop-up card, made by themselves, will work perfectly! Never had a failure yet. I shall also be giving a talk to older children about The Touchstone Trilogy. The festival proper doesn't begin until the weekend (9th May).

On the evening of Thursday 8th I shall be in Edinburgh, visiting Fidra Books.

Fidra Books, if you haven't already heard about it, is both an independent children's bookshop, and an independent publisher. Fidra is under the management of Vanessa Robertson, protector and promoter of all that's worthwhile and wonderful in children's publishing. (And scourge of all that is not, I suspect). For those interested in writing for children, I shall be giving a talk on the subject, advising on how best to get your work in front of an agent or publisher. 7.30 kick off. Don't be late.

Fidra Books


Back from those cities of granite and light, Aberdeen and Edinburgh respectively. Not enough time to do much more than scratch the surface of what each has to offer, but a successful trip nevertheless. Thanks to all for looking after me - Karen and Fiona and Kay in Aberdeen, and Malcolm and Vanessa in Edinburgh. I'll be back, or so they tell me, and that can't be bad.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Here's a detail from the cover illustration for my new book. Or at least I'm hoping that's what it'll be. I haven't yet heard back from my editor regarding the story, so I might be jumping the gun rather. And of course there's no guarantee that I'd get the job of doing the cover illustration in any case. Have to give it a go, though.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Circles of Hell. No.1 (in a series of seven): Other people's music.

In the first circle of hell, we have other people's music forced upon us. How come other people have such appalling taste? Are they deaf? Whenever somebody pulls up next to me at traffic lights, with their sound system going DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH-DUH, I feel as though I'm under some dreadful viral attack. Have I got any antidote handy? No. Only an old Oscar Peterson cassette in the glove compartment. I wonder if maybe the adjacent driver is off on some secret and dangerous mission, whereby he'll be brutally tortured if caught and that this is his way of hardening himself up in advance. Like a cattle prod up the bum is going to be a stroll in the park after an hour or two of listening to this.

I suspect that in many cases DUH-DUH music comes ready-installed with the car. Or perhaps you buy it from a motor accessories shop.

"Hallo. I want a tin of T-Cut, a RipCurl bumper sticker, and oh yeah...some of that performance stuff that you put in the sound system. You know - it makes a big noise, makes the car go faster, whatever."

"Certainly Sir. Techno-pump. We've got an uprated version. Try this: Now That's What I Call Music For People Who Don't Like Music! '68.

"Sounds great."

No, it sounds crap, actually. And everyone knows it but you, don't they?

Monday, March 31, 2008

New book

Last night, at around 1 am, I sent off the manuscript for my new novel.

Always a strange and anxious moment, to see so many months of intense work go shooting off into the ether, but this time it's even more nerve-racking than usual. I have a new editor for this book, and neither she nor anyone else has seen the work in progress. She has no idea of what to expect. What will she think of it? Will she even like it? I'm saying nothing publicly about the story until I've at least had an initial reaction from her.

What I can say, though, is 'sorry' to all those readers and collectors who are STILL waiting for their signed copies of Winter Wood, ordered yonks ago. I think that I've now emailed all individually, to say that I shall be dealing with the backlog this week. If I've missed you out, then please speak up.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Heimkehr ins Elfenreich!

A reader posted in 'Winter Wood updated info' today, informing me that the German translated version is now available. (Thanks, Regina.)

'Heimkehr ins Elfenreich'
is here, folks! Or rather there. I haven't seen an actual copy yet, but here's a pic of the cover.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Here are two old ladies who could teach us a thing or two about performance and motivation. First clip was sent to me by a friend (thanks Eddy) after a conversation over a game of snooker. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and choir singing 'Up Above My Head'. Look at this girl go, cranking up her Gibson SG for a guitar solo that'd stand up in any rockin' blues club on today's circuits. And if you're thinking 'wow, she plays like Chuck Berry, or even early Hendrix!', then just remember who came first...


Second clip is the great Mahalia Jackson, mother of all soul singers, with a wonderful rendition of 'Just A Closer Walk With Thee'. She sings this at a tribute concert for Louis Armstrong. I love this woman. The way she builds her performance is so uplifting, her stagecraft so effective. She walks away from the mic at the end, and leaves the stage still hollering and singing her heart out. I can't watch it with dry eyes.

They help old Louis up onto the stage at the end, and he's very obviously knocked out by Mahalia's performance. I guess she'd have to be a few years older than him, too, but still capable of belting it out like a twenty year old. Fantastic. It's enough to give you religion, if you don't already have it.

Oh, and look out for the pianist. A great bluesy player, and another woman.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


For anyone forced to share office space with one of those terrible 'motivation' pictures, here's an amusing antidote:

Monday, February 18, 2008

Things once common, now extinct. No. 4: Comics

Comics were rather frowned upon, when I was growing up. Not proper reading, you see. But there were degrees of non-approval, a distinction between the broadsheets and the red-tops as it were, and so discerning parents like mine might fork out for a subscription to The Eagle whereas The Beezer would have to come out of your own pocket money.

The Eagle was the senior paper in a little chain of sister publications: Robin, for very young children, then Swift, then Eagle. The same publisher also produced a girls' paper, called, imaginatively enough, Girl. The strip that everyone remembers from The Eagle is Dan Dare, of course. Wonderfully illustrated by Frank Hampson, and later by the equally great Frank Bellamy, this was classy stuff. I still rate the Mekon as the best space villain ever.

Other comics thought by parents to be more or less OK included Victor, Hotspur, Rover and Lion. For girls there was Bunty and School Friend. These comics contained short stories as well as serialised strips, and it was this wordage that gave them acceptability - plus the fact that the storylines in the strips themselves took a high moral tone. Blind and crippled kids abounded, plucky types from terribly deprived backgrounds somewhere in the north, orphans, deaf mutes, polio victims. Their parents would have been killed in plane crashes. All of them overcame their physical and social handicaps, not to mention bullying of the most vicious kind, and went on to dance, sing, and run for England. Then they would be adopted by wealthy foster parents. That's if they didn't turn out to have been aristocrats all along. Such stories were as good a grounding as any for future students of Dickens.

Down at the cheaper end we had Dandy and Beano. Even these contained strips that had longish paragraphs of text attached. Black Bob, for instance, the amazing sheepdog, who was forever preventing his little chum, Blind Billy, from falling down mine shafts. And General Jumbo, with his magical army of miniature robots. There was a good ten minutes reading material in each of these strips. You couldn't just look at the pictures. It was the same with the early comic annuals - far more prose than you see nowadays.

And then came the ruck: Beezer and Topper, where there was no text as such, nor ongoing stories, just speech balloons and the same cast of characters in a new adventure every week. Beezer and Topper were the equivalent of cheap candy bars, something to be gobbled down at a sitting, a quick sugary fix. And why not? I see now that the habit of reading itself, formed at an early age, is far more important than content.

I had no prejudice or particular preference that I can remember, but would simply pounce on whatever came my way - including my sister's comics. In fact I recall strips from Bunty quite clearly even now, and can list the names of all Four Marys, no trouble. (Mary Field, Mary Raleigh, Mary Simpson and Mary Cotter. Villains? Veronica Something-or-other and Mabel Lentham.)

Other obscure characters I can dredge up on the spot: Woppit, Alf Tupper (the Tough of The Track), Winker Watson, Ginger, Beryl the Peril, Nancy, Baby Crockett, Pop Dick and Harry, Roy of The Rovers, Harold Hare, Little Plum, Smart Art (he's quick on the draw!) Jonah, Corporal Clott, Foxy, Mustapha Phagg, Keyhole Kate, Billy Whizz, Dirty Dick, The Three Bears...

A boy reading a comic was a boy for whom a more useful occupation could always be found. Consequently a borrowed copy of The Beezer was something to be devoured in private, if not in secret. Comics were faintly subversive, but therein lay their great educational value; in order to enjoy them properly you had to be able to read fairly well. I wonder now if there wasn't some reverse psychology at work.
"Stephen! Are you reading again? Why don't you go outside in the fresh air and throw rocks at something instead?"
"OK, Mum. Just five minutes more..."

Oh, I forgot to mention Look and Learn. This was a very worthy publication, the only 'comic' that had the official stamp of approval from parents and teachers. But there was nothing comic about it, I can tell you, packed as it was with useful facts about Fridtjof Nanssen, and impossible instructions on how to build your own crystal set from a tin of pineapple chunks and a cello string. Pity the poor kid who had a subscription to Look and Learn every week. He'd be the one put off reading for life.