A good idea…

Sitting down here in the wilds of Leicestershire, back on family duty, I suddenly realised that I had an Authors Electric blog to do. Shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it usually coincides with our turn to keep the home fires burning now that one of the Aged Ps is sadly no longer with us. But it did raise the immediate question – what shall I write about?

That, being a writer, is not a new question, obviously. In fact many AE blogsters ask from time to time where ideas come from, and how different people process them. As it happens my need for a subject matter coincided with some historical work I’m doing, and a couple of barely-related strands popped unbidden into my sights. One was the extraordinary suggestion/possibility that Abraham Lincoln had been shot because he was gay and refused to come out of the closet, and the other was the destruction of ancient monumental works of art or worship by the ‘new Puritans’ of ISIS.

These subjects are hardly related, except that they are both remarkably extreme. Lincoln’s sexuality, apparently, was glaringly obvious to anyone with well developed ‘gaydar’. According to Larry Kramer’s new book, John Wilkes Booth shot him because he turned down his advances, not because he didn’t like the play. And the destruction of ancient works of art is a product of the alleged fact (also glaringly obvious, apparently) that they are an affront to Allah and his Prophet.

To a Westerner who tends to accept anyone and everyone’s sexuality as entirely their own matter, and all religions as manifestations of an incomprehensible, but apparently basic, human need, both these strands call for little specific comment. But they made me think in general about how magnificently bonkers us humans seem to be. The decades-long orgy of destruction of the Nelson/Napoleon era blurred the ideal of revolution into the invasion and colonization of a whole continent, while the murder of a politician is shoe-horned into an argument that, to put it mildly, hardly needs it.

Let us stay with ideas though. I’m about to embark on number three of my Nelson saga, and my mind is steeped in blood. The carnage wrought by iron balls smashing through oak or teak, and producing the by-product of flying shards and splinters big enough and sharp enough to behead and disembowel, is matched by the fate of one of Nelson’s colleagues who fought with him in Nicaragua. Colonel Despard, formerly a hero, now a traitor, is condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He has not been caught actually doing anything, you understand, merely thinking about it. He’s Irish, of course.

Shift forward a couple of decades, still on the naval theme. Deportees from Van Dieman’s Land – yes, deportees from that repository of the deported – are shipped out to Norfolk Island a thousand miles further from Australia where their treatment is so vile that they draw lots to die by suicide. If you lose you are murdered by a fellow convict, and if you win you murder one, happy in the knowledge that you will now be hanged. I’m not making this up. Thank you Sîan Rees for your fascinating The Ship Thieves.

If you think these European nastinesses pale into insignificance compared with smashing up idols because you consider your non-European country and your culture has been destroyed by generations of invaders, consider this: there is a growing argument in the West that such iconoclastic behaviour means we no longer need to ‘repatriate’ stolen artefacts such as the Elgin marbles. Even good old Boris seems to think so. Protection by theft. It’s a good’un.

Here’s a quote culled from this week’s New York Times: “If the people of these lands are indifferent and even hostile to their ‘cultural heritage,’ what’s the point in reserving it for them to ignore or destroy?”

Or to expand it perhaps, “isn’t it extraordinary that these people, so intellectually and culturally inferior, could have made these wondrous works of art in the first place. It can only have been an accident, and they need us to appreciate them.”

So where do my ideas for fiction at the moment come from? Well, history. Which seems to suggest that the path towards what might one day end as genuine civilisation is hardly a straightforward one. Drones is a good one to think about. We can now kill those nasty ragheads without even seeing them, or the ever-larger clusters of innocent bystanders who also die. Innocent? Good God, they pull down their own statues! Infamous!

Ghandi, I believe, was asked by Churchill once what he thought of Western civilisation. It sounds like a good idea, he said.

PS. Late night newsflash. Just heard from Endeavour that my Napoleon book’s been selected as a Kindle Single. They tell me this is good!

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/11/were-lincoln-nixon-gay-history-book-divides-america

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Ship-Thieves-Sian-Rees/dp/B004K2UMMK

SEX CHANGE SHOCK!

According to the Amazon title page of my new novella about Nelson, published today, “Jan Needle has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, etc.”
That’s right people – I’m officially a HER http://amzn.to/1rdg3ed

This is the second in a series of short books about Nelson, and covers the time of his return from the campaign in Nicaragua. He returns to Jamaica extremely sick, extremely weak, and possibly dying. He is nursed back to strength by a woman called Cuba Cornwallis (Surname taken from the Navy man who released her from slavery), probably with the use of non-western remedies including voodoo.

Nelson is now twenty two, coming to terms with tragedy (including in his family) and still blazing with ambition for wealth and glory.

Amazon promised to restore me to full maleness ASAP, but anyone who buys a copy with the unemended title page could virtually sell it in the virtual future for virtually any sum of money they desired.

Me, I don’t care. Call me a lady if you like, but I do have a beard…

Going on a pig hunt

I’ve never really been involved in book launches before, but for the new version of Wild Wood we had three. The first was organised by the publisher, Golden Duck, in the Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, London. It is a terrific, lovely old-fashioned bookshop, and even more weirdly is opposite a restaurant called Wildwood. Either a good omen, or (less likely) the opportunity for a breach of copyright action.

It was graced with many literary names, among them Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, and Richard Ingrams, the former and original editor of that mighty organ.

An extraordinary number of people crammed into the basement room, and drank fizzy wine, red and white still wine, and a small barrel of bitter brewed and donated by Greenfield Brewery, of Saddleworth, to commemorate the occasion. It was called Daisy’s Special, and went down a treat.

The next one was in West Didsbury, Manchester, at the Albert Bowls and Social Club, where I’ve been a member for years. I gave a short, nervous reading from the book, Daisy’s Special was supped in heroic quantities, and Eliza P Songstress sang a song about the book that she’d composed especially. She’s a bit of a genius, and wrote it, complete with tune, about twelve hours after I asked her to. Later she was persuaded to sing another of her songs, this one about telephone sex. A versatile lass!

Finally, we held one in the Uppermill Con Club (where I’ve never actually met a Conservative, fortunately, given the them of the book), which turned into a bit of a musical riot. Eliza P started off with her song, then Mick Collins of the Hometowners became the unofficial MC and organised a sing and play around. The food table was massive and overflowing, and Tony and Mary Harrall of Greenfield Brewery came and had a pint as well.

Back up the hill at eleven o’clock the fun took on a different turn. Sean and Sadie’s two pigs – mother and ‘baby’ called Sausage and Bacon – had broken out of their sty and were laying waste to the Yorkshire Moors. There an ancient breed called Iron Age apparently, noted only for escaping and biting. It took Sean, me and Dave (plus a handful of shrieking females) to get them ocked up in the barn for the night. And they didn’t even buy a book!

So – in the future, more launches. Even more pigs, perhaps. Everybody welcome…

Peer into the murk

Someone told me I ought to tell the waiting world a bit about me. I was unconvinced, but a few drinks helped. Here’s the result. Make of it what you will. She also said I ought to update my Wikipedia entry, but I ain’t never done one. Perhaps I’d better have a look at what it says…

Jan Needle was first published at the age of about seven, during the war in Korea. He started off confused, as his father was the editor of a Labour Party news sheet called the Courier, which he took to be the name of the country. Even then an opportunist, he offered to write his father a novel about the conflict, to be serialised weekly.

The first chapter appeared on the front page, but his delight turned to anger when it transpired that his father had not corrected his spelling, on the grounds that it was extremely funny. Jan refused to write any subsequent chapter, so thus ended his first work.

As he had killed off the hero at the end of the chapter it was a lucky break for the young novelist, and a mistake he rarely repeated.

Although what was known happily in those days as a slum kid, he went to Portsmouth Grammar School after doing quite well in the Eleven Plus and extremely badly in an entrance exam for borderliners. He was allowed in on interview, apparently because the posh teachers found him quite funny. When asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, he tried and failed several times to say “a barrister,” which was the answer his parents had told him was the passport to a place.

Finally he blurted out the truth: “I want to be the captain of an oceangoing tug.” He felt vaguely humiliated when everybody laughed, but ended up enrolled, at the bottom of the D stream, where he contentedly failed to struggle for three years but was thrust up into the C stream willy-nilly.

Due to take three A-levels – English, French and German – he was asked to leave after two terms in the six form on the grounds that he was unlikely to pass any of them. In those happy days, dumb teenagers didn’t need to become crackheads or male prostitutes to live, so Jan joined the Portsmouth Evening News. (Which some people might think is not so different, come to that.)

Quickly realising that writing fiction and calling it fact was but a short step from trying to tell the truth as he saw it, he started writing short stories, and by the time he was 19 had had a few published. He then moved north to Manchester to join the Daily Herald as a reporter, quickly became a subeditor, and found himself where he wanted to be. Usually drunk, rarely sleeping, and vaguely underwashed.

In his mid-20s he decided he had enough of journalism, and became a drama student at Manchester University. He had to take three part-time A-levels at Rochdale College to get in, and discovered that Portsmouth Grammar School’s assessment of his abilities had not been far out. He scored E for English, which meant he had to do an extra year before he could move into the honours school. He got a first, which he is not prepared to boast about, because he still thinks it was because the professor was afraid of him.

By the time he graduated, Jan had had two or three radio plays produced, and supplemented his grant by working as a freelance subeditor, mainly on the Daily Mirror. He did shifts and wrote articles for other newspapers, including the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, and even the Sunday Times and the Sun. What with that and his fiction writing, he never really found it necessary to get a job again.

While he wrote radio plays, Jan also wrote theatre plays plays, including the first production for the Contact Theatre Company, a wild and modern version of Beaumont and Fletcher’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Then at the age of 30ish he had the strange idea of retelling The Wind in the Willows from the point of view of the downtrodden denizens of the Wild Wood. Never having written a novel before, he thought it was meant to be easy, so it was. Not so easy to get published though – Methuen threatened to sue him for breach of copyright.

Everybody has their price it seems, and not many years later they accepted a small royalty in exchange for their permission. By this time though, Jan had written several children’s books, starting with Albeson and the Germans, following it with My Mate Shofiq, The Size Spies, Rottenteeth and a couple of volumes of short stories.

Although it did quite well when it was published in 1981, Wild Wood suffered from having been published as a kids’ book. Whether or not Kenneth Grahame’s original is for children or not, Jan never thought his version was, although many children seemed to love it.

Some years later, when Grahame’s copyright expired, a rash of sequels appeared, which given the nature of journalism, were noticed and lauded extravagantly. Note to writers: timing is everything.

By now however, writing was a drug. Always self-indulgent to the point of lunacy, Jan wrote what he liked when he liked, with never a thought to what his publishers and agents might recommend. He had another addiction as well: the sea and boats. Despite these fairly major vices, he has managed to produce about 45 books so far.

In the 1980s, Needle moved seriously into television writing. His favourite piece of work was an eight part series called Truckers, which indulged another of his passions, long-distance lorries. You also wrote episodes for several drama series including The Bill, and worked for a year or so on Brookside.

At the same time he began to write what he called “big dirty thrillers,” one of which immediately became a serial on BBC2. HarperCollins vetoed the title Underbelly, which the television people immediately nicked, and Jan later rewrote it as the first of his e-books. It is now called Kicking Off, and is a fierce and brutal looking at the failings and horrors of the British prison system.

The second was a bitter resetting of the Romeo and Juliet “myth” in Northern Ireland, called Other People’s Blood. Then came an examination of another modern story with mythical overtones, Death Order, published by Endeavour Press, which is a political thriller about the Rudolf Hess affair.

Two days after delivering the manuscript of his next book for HarperCollins, Fear of Night and Darkness, Jan was involved in a motorway pile-up which ended his writing for a full eight years. As he had just been asked to do a block of eight episodes of The Bill, it was a financial disaster on top of everything else.

Interspersed with plays and thrillers and children’s literature throughout these years Jan also wrote a series of historical naval adventures featuring William Bentley. The first book was called A Fine Boy for Killing, and approached Britain’s naval history through a distorted lens. The glib idea of extraordinary heroism and honour is skewered comprehensively. Bentley starred in three more novels, and one day the story will be completed. Road accidents can have a debilitating effect on long sea journeys!

The latest sea books are two novellas, the second of which, Nelson: The Poisoned River starts a proposed series on the life of Nelson, the man who almost single-handedly originated the seagoing hero myth. The first book, The Devil’s Luck, also starts a series, which will eventually lead into the life of William Bentley.

As well as writing, sailing, travelling all over France and Germany, and playing a variety of musical instruments (most quite badly) Jan has also found time to produce five children. They range in age now from 38 to 22. Four boys and a girl called Sadie M’gee, (for which she has never forgiven him).

His parents are both dead, which is a great loss in terms of eccentricity if nothing else. His mother was the longtime cook for Portsmouth Water Company who said her greatest achievement was not her two children, but living with their father for so many years. Jim died at the age of 78 after abusing his body mercilessly on a diet of cakes and bummed cigarettes, both of which he apparently started using at the age of seven. He also smoked a pipe 24/7, sometimes using wood shavings instead of tobacco when he was skint. Which sadly, was very frequently.

A trilogy in four parts!

This morning, sensation seekers, I’m going to talk about love and loneliness. I’ve just finished reading The Lion of Sole Bay – another lost night – and I realized afterwards that that is what Julia Jones’s books ‘for children’ are about. This is the fourth one I’ve read, of a project that started as a trilogy, and the subtext is getting ever clearer.

(Which is not to say, naturally, that I’m right. Anybody, up to and including the author herself, is entitled to disagree. All I’d really like to insist on is that you read them.)

Julia’s child characters, let’s say, sprang originally from her reading of Arthur Ransome. Like me, she must have been sucked, inveigled, seduced into a world that I (although not necessarily she) certainly didn’t fully understand and certainly had no cultural part in. Without wishing to sound in any way threatened by it, it was a world of unthinking wealth and privilege that I could clearly never enter. A little later I went to grammar school, where I was one of only two working class boys. Weird.

Also weird in hindsight is the fact that the other boys were almost entirely the sons of naval officers, and therefore spoke an English which I had to emulate asap or get mocked to death – but it was never a problem. Like the world of John Walker, the Blackett girls, Dick and Dorothea, they just were. Different but the same. Ransome’s lot had boats, I had the Sea Scouts. My school compatriots spoke like something off the BBC, but I learned ’em how to sail. Any bullying I suffered came from the older boys, and a couple of the teachers.

Julia’s characters live in a different world again. Some of them are dirt poor, without the benefit of what our Government so pathetically and offensively insists on calling ‘hard-working’ parents. Some of them, indeed, are in care, some of them have health problems, some of them have mums and dads (or not) who are on the verge of going under.

The best sort of trilogy. Roll on Part Five!
But she involves them in situations that are the backbone of the Ransome books. They interact, essentially, with each other. Adults range from the bizarre to the extraneous, but the children are on their own. If not duffers won’t drown. But by God (to quote another favourite author) – no man is an island.

Julia’s key characters, unlike Ransome’s, have extremely subtle needs. Above all things they know (whether in words or not) that they need love, and Ms Jones understands from the bottom of her soul that love is help. She turns the story screw to make that need grow greater all the time. Not in a melodramatic way at all, however. Julia’s stories tend to make me actually cry.

The construct of The Lion of Sole Bay is extraordinary, but achingly simple. A boy called Luke, whom we know of old, is left to have a longed-for holiday alone with his father Bill while his extended and fragmented family go off abroad for their own ‘trip of a lifetime.’ Bill lives on an old fishing boat, and works in the local boatyard, where on the night he’s due to meet Luke, he actually meets a little girl called Angela. She is an emotional outcast, hanging on to a gang of older boys, with whom she manages to accidentally pull a propped-up boat down on to Bill, which comes very close to killing him.

The gang run off, but Angela stays. She is one of the school’s hopeless ones; friendless, apparently feckless, probably on the spectrum, a heavily-bullied dimwit, always in trouble, much despised. She is terrified of the police, but when she knows that they are coming, she stays with Bill, and cradles him, and dares to hold his hand.

She has to run at last, of course. But learns later that Bill, now in intensive care, mistook her for an angel. Angela, known derogatorily as Ants (the other kids like to publicly pull her pants down to check for the insects that must be crawling in them because she is incapable of being still) has found her name at last, a name that she has subconsciously ached for, an identity that can feed her soul. Angel.

Ants and Luke, however, are not the only damaged ones in this story. Alongside Bill’s boat, for some time, has lain a Dutch motor barge called Dree Vrouwen (Three Women) manned (irony) by a mad fascistic politician called Elsevier, her mentally ill follower Hendrike, and Hendrike’s thirteen year old daughter Helen. These three women have come across the North Sea to liberate the figurehead of a Dutch warship involved in the Battle of Sole Bay, in 1672. It is now the proud sign of a roadside pub at the head of the creek, but to Elsevier it is the material exemplar of an ancient crime.

Her own planned crime – in her eyes, the reversal of an ancient wrong – can only be carried out on a certain tide. And Elsevier, although mad, is a great general (she thinks), and completely ruthless. She controls Hendrike with herbal potions, fungi, and illegal drugs. She controls Helen through blackmail (Helen loves her mother and must protect her). And she carries a gun. A November the Fifth party will be the perfect cover for the heist.

Luke, Angel, Helen are thus thrown together – to hate and mistrust each other roundly. Bill lies in hospital, while other adults are helpless and disbelieving. The North Sea, and the late autumn gales, are waiting hungrily. I’m telling you, they will be horrible.

As well as the sea, Julia Jones understands the horror of the human condition, and how utterly cruel life can be. But she also understands redemption, inside out and backwards. And she is an absolute master (mistress? Ask Elsevier) of dramatic tension. Some scenes are more thriller than children’s story. But to categorise this book as either misses several points.

The children and the adults in this novel, this trilogy-plus, all need love. Their loneliness is awe-inspiring. With calmness and power, without a jot of sentimentality, Julia Jones gives it to them. All hail.

Getting into bed with Toad

First things first – a progess report on my amazing Christmas pudding diet. Over the festives, I lost about two pounds. I will say no more, except that Gemma, my son Dave’s lovely girlfriend, went down to Tesco’s after Boxing Day and restocked for the coming months. This time they were only 76p each. Deflation! She bought eight of them. By summer, I will have eaten myself into invisibility. ‘Appen.

Now down to business. Julia Jones, who among her myriad talents is a publisher, has accepted my first and most beloved book, Wild Wood, onto her list, Golden Duck. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Wild Wood is my version of Kenneth Grahame’s masterpiece The Wind in the Willows, in which Toad, Badger, Rat et al are the villains, and the ‘evil rustics’ are in reality the downtrodden poor, more sinned against than sinning. Hence her decision to schedule it for May Day.

When I say villains I’m talking baloney, naturally. Toad and Co are just like you and me – overfed, over fond of picnics and good vino, and just a teensy-weensy bit smug. Hardworking, they’d be called by Tory Central Office, and not in need of benefits (know what I mean?). While those scroungers who live in the Wild Wood, when you think about it, don’t actually do anything.

Except hang about on street corners after dark and be menacing. Or grunt and rustle in the shadows to frighten a chap like Moley, who’s a little bit unworldly, don’t you know? Street corners? That’s the measure of them! They don’t even aspire to a street to hang around the corner of.

So Wild Wood, alarmingly, is the story of a revolution. Less alarmingly, it’s the story of a revolution squidged. Of hopes and aspirations dashed, of justice and social progress blighted. Of the failure, as ever, of England to become the New Jerusalem.

It is a complex narrative, which has already been the subject of at least one doctoral thesis, but rather than lay it out in grisly detail, I’ll give you a snapshot. Let Baxter Ferret, the narrator, hold the stage. He has just blundered into an early meeting of a revolutionary cadre that will morph into the Wild Wood Volunteers. They are, indeed, deep in the snowbound wood, at the general shop of Wilson, the retired sea rat. A smart, ambitious young weasel called O.B. is talking.

‘It’s the latest thing that’s worst,’ he said. ‘It’s the way Toad’s throwing away his money now. It’s the motor car craze. Do you know how many machines that reckless animal has destroyed in the last few months? Well, do you?’

I didn’t, neither did I speak. For try as I might, Toad’s latest fad – which others found so terrible, apparently – I could only think of in terms of sheer envy.

Unlike his fellows, Baxter already knows and loves machinery. He drives a lorry for his farmer boss – a state of the art 1908 Throgmorton Squeezer – and ends up, through a disastrous accident, actually working for the hated amphibian. Ensnared by Toad, ensnared by his solidarity with the workers – whose leader Boddington Stoat, ‘yellow and peculiarly bitter,’ ensnares his kind and lovely little sister Dolly.

The scene is set for tragedy. Rat’s beloved country river seems destined to run with blood. And Baxter can only watch aghast as the opposing factions take arms to enact their rural Armageddon.

Kenneth Grahame was once the secretary of the Bank of England, and was shot at by an Irish terrorist, so the lunacy of Wild Wood isn’t so off the wall as it might seem. The late great Willie Rushton’s illustrations – his son Toby gave me and Julia personal permission to use them as we wished – also tread delicately along an inexpressible line of wonder. As Willie once said: ‘Where would we be without a sense of humour?’ (And answered, ‘Germany!’)

My son Matti (matti.gardner@gmail.com) designed the cover, and was the techie man as usual, but Julia and I helped with lots of tinkering. It’s gone through a couple of phases so far, and may yet be modified. Please feel free to comment.

And if you want to know absolutely EVERYTHING about Grahame and his book, read Annie Gauger’s The Annotated Wind in the Willows. Fablous, it is. Published by www.wwnorton.com