Swine Before Pearls

Odd where you get your fun from, innit? As an ex Brookside writer, I agreed to do a brains trust type gig at a literary beanfeast in Malpas, in the depths of Cheshire, with three of the other stalwarts – Jimmy McGovern, Andrew Lynch, and John Oakden, one of the festival organisers, who lives in the area.
None of us knew what to expect, but anything’s better than boredom, and we were promised a good lunch at a local pub. Then we faced about fifty people who did not look, to be frank, like what you’d imagine Brookie fans to be.
Respectable, well-heeled, polite. Unlikely to bury a redundant loved-one under the patio in Brookside Close. (Although you never know, do you?)
John decided the best way forward was to just sit on the platform (without even a glass of gin to hand) and talk about the show and how we’d got on to it, and how it had fitted in with our life as writers. Then we’d offer ourselves up to be questioned, or even filleted.
I was a bit dubious to start with, especially about my role in it. I came to the series later than the others – who were, in fact, all ‘founder members’ – and I was a Southerner who still can’t even do an approximation of a Scouse accent. I didn’t think I’d get scragged in respectable Cheshire/ Shropshire, but the possibility was there…
And anyway, talking about a show that ended several years ago…well, would anybody still be interested?
They were, and so were we. John gave a general introduction, then the anecdotes began to flow. I admitted my outsider status – when I joined I was basically a novelist – and how it felt to be enveloped in the warmth and generosity of that weird and wonderful entity that is ‘The Pool.’
I also remembered a great number of things about the set-up, and the personalities of some of the writers, actors, and directors. And how bizarre it felt on the Friday after
the monthly script meeting to sit in my local and wait for the phone call that would tell me if I’d got an episode or not.
There were twelve of us writers, and eight episodes per month. Even as a grammar school boy I could do that bit of maths. Plus, each time I got an episode I had to buy all my mates a round!
We spoke for about an hour, much to our amazement, and the audience would have stayed for more, I guess. They certainly had not run out of questions when a halt was called. But the festival must go on, as they say. And the boozer was calling.
There was a woman there, whose name, shamefully I did not catch, who sketched us as we talked, then showed us the results. I was easily the most handsome, but then I used to be a journalist as well and therefore should never be believed.
Naturally enough, in this era of instant communication, somebody else knew her name, and sent it to me, with one of the sketches. This happened, madly, because I have a Facebook friend called (this is TRUE) Jan Needle, who buzzed it on to me. Jan Needle is a woman, without a beard, and we have never met. I thank her for her generosity!
So I can now reveal the artist is called Julia Midgley, and if I can I’ll sent on the message and the pic. I’m a scribbler though, not a techie wizard, so gawd knows what’ll happen. If owt.
But after the festivities it was back to Liverpool for Jimmy, and St Helens for me and Andy (who had a bed for me), and down the road to his own lovely house for John. Andy and I ended up outside a night-club in St Helens (yes, you heard me right!) where we were to meet Johnny Vegas and his wonderful PA Bev Dixon for a special do.
Sadly, Lynch had got the date wrong by a month (I won’t say typical but he is St Helens born and bred) so we hung around in the cold until we did the sensible thing.

A good night’s sleep and then back home in time for Gentleman Jack with the amazing Suranne Jones. As the French might say, quell weekend!

Well I tried me best, but failed. Clcik on this link and you might see the pic though. Fingers crossed.

PS Apologies to people who’ve left comments and feel I’m ignoring them. I’m only feeling my way…  Hopefully, I’ll get there later….

The Hunchback Rides Again

There are all sorts of aspects of the Notre Dame fire which are fascinating. As well as being a tragedy, it shows how some tragedies are worse than others, for instance. No one died, and within days money was pouring in from all over the world to rebuild it. Monsieur Macron, facing a difficult election soon must have thanked his lucky stars.
    Conspiracy theorists please form an orderly queue.
    And what, you may ask, of other governments’ responses to such horrors? What about that fire in London last year? People died, you may remember. A hideous number of them. Large sums of money were also contributed to a fund for the bereaved and the homeless. Many of them are still homeless. Many of them still hover on the shores of destitution.
     Victor Hugo wrote an amazing novel about the cathedral, which like many of his works was so enormous that many of us found it hard to finish. (As did he, in fact. His publishers had to grovel on their metaphorical knees to get him to finally deliver the late, late manuscript.) His original title made no reference to the poor destitute creature Quasi Modo, found abandoned outside the cathedral and whose life became intertwined with it, but it was due to him that the book finally became a world property – on the back of Hollywood, natch.
    And now, Hugo’s great classic is selling like hot cakes again in France. Nowt like publicity, is there? In which spirit I might refer you to my own ‘version’ and translation, which i did for Walker Books, and which was illustrated by David Hughes. His pictures were so amazing, and uncompromising, that many people seemed to think they should not have appeared in what was seen (by the English) as a children’s/young adults’ book.
It’s still available, and I still think it’s one of my better works (not least for the illustrations!). You can always Google it…

Off to Sea Once More….

The Sea Officer Bentley Thrillers: A naval fiction box set

In the words of the fine old song, ‘We’re Off to Sea Once More.’

Or to put it another way, my four 18th century sea books about the troubled young officer William Bentley have just been brought out as a box set by Endeavour Press. Which means that for a ridiculously low price (eight quid I think, without being arsed to actually check) you can follow his adventures from a greenhorn to a captain, from a virgin to a haunted sexual being, from a believer in the nobility of his calling and the British Navy to a man of complex crises.

Like many young men – children? – of his era he was lucky enough to be turfed out of house and home to live with several hundred men in a floating murder-machine, trained and moulded by older officers who ranged from geniuses to psychopaths, turned into heroes or corpses for the greater good and glory of the noblest and most self-satisfied country the world had probably ever known.

It was indeed a signal privilege to fight and die for England. To forge the greatest and bloodiest empire of modern times. To set the guidelines for the way Pax Britannica came to be seen by the world today.

William Bentley, a Hampshire boy, was lucky enough to have an uncle, Daniel Swift, who would take him on his frigate Welfare as a midshipman. Swift was a natural teacher, with a view of the men and officers under his command that everyone admired. Until they tasted, and endured, it.

Men like Jesse Broad, a seaman and a smuggler, ripe to be pressed, and destined to be hated by his savage captain. His natural nobility was a magnet to the young midshipman – and a red rag to the bull that was Daniel Swift. The ending of the first book – A Fine Boy for Killing – is agreed by many critics to be truly horrific.

It also sets the scene for the long rise to maturity of Sea Officer Bentley, and his fight for some sort of honourable survival. The survival and honour, also, of the woman he is born to love. Deborah – Deb – the Portsmouth slavey, the seagoing whore, the Spithead Nymph.

The books are too bleak for some, but I can’t help that, can I? I started writing them as a alternative to the gung-ho delights of the great books of the tradition, and as my stories developed, my view grew bleaker. I do mean great, however. Hornblower was my first love, Aubrey when he came along.

They stirred my blood, I read them passionately. But I somehow felt I owed it the poor sods who actually did our bloody work for us that we should maybe taste the blood as well. Nelson came home pickled in brandy, and Emma Hamilton, who had to sell her body for the first time at fourteen or so, died a penniless alcoholic in France. Their daughter was acknowledged as Nelson’s only in her name, Horatia.

To us British, some forms of honour are more important than others, aren’t they?

Art and populism

Here’s a sign of the times, and a worry. What with Michael Jackson, that American film-maker (supply names ad lib) and all the other people who think little boys are there to be fucked and fondled (and girls as well), coupled with the rise of populism, people like The Donald, and the trend for dismissing anything you don’t like as Fake News, truth, art, et cetera, are on shaky grounds indeed. Today I read that Lolita is now in the firing line, which is horrifying.
If you haven’t read it, hard luck. I picked up on it when I was seventeen or so, and decided it was a howling masterpiece. I’ve never changed my mind. It tells the story of a paedophile called Humbert Humbert, who falls in love/lust with a girl of twelve. As you’d expect from Nabokov the prose is nothing short of wonderful, and his characterisation is complex and disturbing. For the ‘hero’, the story is a tragedy. For Lolita – well, it’s hard to say. Which I think is the point.
It’s a deeply serious novel, about a deeply serious subject. And titillating, I do assure you, it is not. Fast forward to today. Here’s a digest of today’s piece in the Bookseller.

‘Jonathan Cape’s Dan Franklin has said he wouldn’t be able to publish  Lolita – about a man’s obsession with a 12-year-old girl – were he to be offered it today, because of the #MeToo phenomenon and changing attitudes among a younger generation.
‘Quoted by Rachel Johnson in a Spectator article, Franklin told the publication: “You can organise outrage at the drop of a hat. If Lolita was offered to me today, I’d never be able to get it past the acquisition team — a committee of 30-year-olds, who’d say, ‘If you publish this book we will all resign.’
‘Johnson’s piece references trigger warnings in universities for material with sensitive content and the use of morality clauses in publishing contracts, describing publishing as having “a massive attack of wokeness”.
‘Also quoted is literary agent Natasha Fairweather of Rogers, Coleridge and White, who commented: “The real story is about what is happening in the world of young adult publishing, where the mood is becoming so militant that you are no longer allowed to write from the perspective of anyone other than yourself. Amelie Wen Zhao withdrew her book from publication with a Twitter post that read like a Stalin-era apology.”
‘Zhao asked her publisher, Random House’s Delacorte imprint in the US, to delay publication of her YA debut following criticism online of a slave auction scene.
Meanwhile Curtis Brown chair Jonathan Lloyd was quoted on the furore surrounding writer Dan Mallory, the author of thriller The Woman in the Window (HarperCollins), accused in a very lengthy New Yorker article of fabricating his past and lying about having cancer. Lloyd told the Spectator: “We all knew he had fantasies. Does the fact that he might be a bipolar fabulist detract from his abilities to write a novel? Not in the least.”‘

So that appears to be it. Never mind the quality, feel the width. How would Voltaire have got on, do you think? Or DH Lawrence? Or practically every serious writer there’s ever been? The business, surely, is to examine, to reveal, to investigate – to show human beings and their foibles – however vile. Upset the reader, if you must – because you MUST.

I’m using this last sentence as a joke, honestly: ‘It’s political correctness gone mad.’

War book with a difference

The Cruise of Naromis. August in the Baltic 1939
By G.A.Jones

Every now and then a book pops up out of nowhere and grabs you by the throat. Not in a brash or aggressive way, but by sneaking under your skin and eyebrows and being hard to put down or ignore.

The Cruise of the Naromis is one of these. It came to light in a fairytale way when Julia Jones, the author and publisher, took a long hard look at some papers left many years before by her father George, which turned out to be an almost casual account of a motor boat trip undertaken in the very month before World War II became a reality rather than a lurking fear.

George and his four friends, all carefree and middle-class, joined the RNVSR – a sort of amateur navy for small boat freaks – and took a ‘pleasure trip’ up the Kiel Canal to the Baltic Sea, fraternizing happily with men who very shortly became England’s sworn enemies.

Along the canal through Germany, school children waved happily at them, and German-speaking young men drank with them like traditional brothers of the sea. And all the time Hitler and Churchill were making their dreadful preparations.

Julia’s father gives a peculiarly specific picture of a certain type of young man, in a certain era coming to an abrupt and catastrophic end. His companions tended towards classic English nicknames – he was ‘Honest George’ and there were also ‘Skip’ and ‘Fattie’ – and classic English attitudes. Their boat was also of that ilk: built of wood on the Norfolk Broads, with two diesel engines and a full suit of sails. Think Arthur Ransome, think Captain Flint.

Think, as they did, lovely, dreamy, flaxen-haired German damsels drinking tons of German beer and elegantly smoking cigarettes. Enough to make a young man’s heart ache or break.

Nothing much happens to them on the trip – thank God – but they take a lot of photographs, which they (perhaps disingenuously) see as pretty insignificant. Oh yes, of shipping in the Kiel Canal the week before the war breaks out. They were possibly lucky to end up alive, who knows?

But they did, thank heaven, and because of that we have Julia Jones and the rest of George’s family. Like this book, worth cherishing.

Published by Golden Duck. Isbn: 9781899262335

Nowt to do with me

Every month, to my surprise, I suddenly find I have this blog to write and I haven’t got a clue. This month, what we writers laughingly call the pressure is even greater than usual, because I’m flying off to Berlin in a day or two, and I have other vital things to finish. Aw! It’s me I feel sorry for…

Sometimes, though, the suffering of other people is brought home with a bang. Julia Jones’s gruelling and frighteningly honest piece on the 9th was a case in point. It was hard to read, and harder to digest. I left a comment because I wanted to show some solidarity, but I had not a clue what to say. Julia is wonderful, one of those people who makes one feel inadequate. I can only thank her for it.

Another terrific writer who has this effect on me is Mark Frankland – and he also runs a charity in Dumfries for victims of the military life. Not people who have been attacked or injured by the forces in the normal course of what they do, but those in the forces themselves who have fallen by the wayside in the aftermath of serving their country. The suffering and deprivation of these men and women who have done their best is horrifying. Here’s an extract of his latest blog, which went up on March 2. I’ve edited it for space reasons.

Mark Frankland wrote:
Over the last thirteen years working at First Base I have been left feeling angry and appalled too many times to count. Angry and appalled at the way people are treated. Angry and appalled at the casual cruelty of our supposedly caring State. Angry and appalled at the way faceless bureaucrats seem to think it is OK to step on vulnerable people as if they are human cockroaches.

And anyone who has read this blog of mine over the years will know where I am coming from. And at times it is easy to slip into the same kind of zone that A&E nurses probably live in. You get to thinking that you have already seen the worst of the worst. You get to thinking that nothing to come can be worse than what has already been.

But to be honest to think like that would be pretty bloody naïve. And so it was that on a cold day in December I drove up to Edinburgh to meet up with Sam.

I have only met [him] once before and it was very brief. It was on one of the very worst of days. The day we said goodbye to James.

James, the youngest client of our Veterans Project. James, who could have been tearaway, who took the King’s Shilling and signed up. James who stood tall and magnificent on a hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who left the army when his dad died because his mum needed him. James who was one of the most decent guys it has ever been my honour to meet. James whose conscience and soul could not handle what he had seen and done on that hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who took his own life at 23 years old on a bone cold January night.

His brothers in arms from the Regiment came down to carry his coffin under the cold grey January skies.

And Sam was one of the band of brothers. I can still picture him that day. Clearly. He was so tall it made carrying James awkward. Sam the six foot five Fijian with the ramrod back. A face as hard as one of those Easter Island statues. But his eyes. His eyes were windows onto a grief stricken soul.

And I remember standing at the grave side and thinking what a crazy world we live in. Sam. The warrior from a warrior tribe. So many thousands of miles from his South Sea home. Tall and like a king from a Kipling story. Still as a rock. Saying his goodbyes to a fellow warrior.

On a cold, cold day.

In Dumfries.

In Scotland.

James’s mum Nicola called me a few weeks ago. She said she had been talking to Sam on Facebook. She said Sam is out of the Army now. Out in the cold. And things are not so good. Pretty bad in fact. Could First Base do anything? I said we would do our best.

But no promises. Other than the promise to drive up to Edinburgh to meet him. He is waiting for me.

[Sam] remembers [that] when they got him to sign the dotted line in Fiji they said that four years served would mean guaranteed citizenship.

He served nine years.

Iraq. The Falklands. Northern Ireland. Afghanistan.

The same hard, hard Helmand Tour as James. With James. He did the hardest of hard miles. And every month his salary had income tax and National Insurance deducted. Like he was a citizen.

But when he left the army in 2012 he learned the hard way that the British Establishment tell lies.

Citizenship? Who told you that? Good lord. I very much doubt it…

Well. You’ll just have to apply along with all the rest, won’t you? But don’t hold your breath. We’re not overly keen on your type to be frank. No money? No thought not.

So Sam applied. Three years ago. And for three years they have made him sign on. But his was a different sort of sign on. Every Monday he walks six miles into Edinburgh city centre to sign his name in a police station. Like a common criminal. Like a terrorist. Like scum. And then he walks six miles home again.

And he waits.

He receives not a penny and he has been told in no uncertain terms that should he do so much as an hour’s work he will be on a plane back to Fiji before he gets the chance to blink.

His partner has left him and she doesn’t let him see his son. His son is five now. The last picture Sam has is of a three year old.

He has another girlfriend now and she pays the bills. They share one room over a pub. They share a mattress on the floor. And Sam watches TV all day. And one by one the demons of those hard, hard Helmand days are starting [to] crawl into his head like maggots.

I promise that I will try to do what I can. We stand and shake hands. Maybe there is a faint smile. Maybe not. He thanks me and I feel terrible.

I get in my van and drive south.

And all the way back I remember him in that cold graveyard on that cold January day. Like a statue. Like a king. Like a warrior. So very far from home. Saying goodbye to an unlikely brother in arms.

But a brother all the same.

After Frankland had written this, things deteriorated. A fellow tenant in Sam’s block turned out to be a psychopath, who smashed in the back of his head with a claw hammer. His girlfriend Kirsty called an ambulance, and he was saved. The psychopath was charged with attempted murder – but later bailed. He then threatened the landlord, who evicted Kirsty. No notice, nothing. Just go.

When Sam was discharged from hospital he was homeless, naturally.

‘Not merely a non person now, a homeless non person. They walked the streets to the homeless department. They were told that a box room was going to be £100 a night because Kirsty was working and Sam didn’t officially exist. And it was only for one night anyway.’

What’s more, the psychopath was still on the look out for them.

Mark Frankland, and First Base, continued fighting. He finally got two MPs interested, and engineered a breathing space. A room for a week. A stay of execution.

And so yet again I am left with nothing to do other than to slam my keyboard with the words you are reading now. If there is anyone out there who can help in any way at all please let me know. And if there are any reporters out there who can take Sam’s story to a wider audience please get in touch. I asked him if we would be willing to allow the press to tell his story. He is. He will. And I’ll tell you what guys, he’ll take a hell of a photo. A six and a half foot warrior version of Marvin Gaye.

He deserves so much more than this. Now he needs a clamour. Angry voices. Justice and fairness demanded.

Because everything about this is just so very, very wrong.

The First Base Agency would be more than happy to pass on any donations to Sam. Cheques to The First Base Agency can be sent to 6 Buccleuch St, Dumfries, DG12AH. The First Base Agency – TSB – Sort Code – 30-25-88 Acc No – 00533183.

PS Anybody fancying a PDF of my new thriller The Bonus Boys with a view to doing a quickie Amazon review email me at jan.needle@gmail.com Some of it takes place near this beautiful idyllic harbour, and it’s ‘orrible.