Trumpet blowing for beginners

No one ever got anywhere by not blowing their own trumpet, my old dad used to say (and it certainly didn’t get him anywhere. He was more a clarinet man). But on returning from a week in sunny southern France I found this on the Authors Electric blog, on the subject of Arthur Ransome, Robert Stevenson, and the business of mining writers of the past to bring something interesting to the present. It’s by my old mucker Dennis Hamley, and I haven’t asked him if I can use it. The other writer he cites is Julia Jones, who owns Arthur Ransome’s last boat, Peter Duck. There a link to the left to her outfit, Golden Duck Publishing. And her books are magic, believe me!

Here’s part of what Dennis wrote on Authors Electric

I was in Blackwell’s in Oxford the other day and saw a book there which I knew I had to buy. Arthur Ransome’s Long-lost Study of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Kirsty Nichol Findlay, an academic from New Zealand who is obviously crackers about both of them, and published by the Boydell Press. How the study was lost and how it was found are both extraordinary stories on their own account. It wasn’t Ransome who did the losing. He was disillusioned with its progress, his publisher was suddenly very lukewarm and also he was just preparing to go to Russia, partly as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, more pressingly to get away from Ivy, his wife, because they were driving each other mad. So he cut his losses and left it to Ivy to post. That was a mistake. Though going to Russia wasn’t. Because here he found himself both as writer and sailor and here he met Evgenia, Trotsky’s secretary, married her and they had long and lovely lives together.

Even though he never finished the book, the draft we have is still a delight. Ransome felt a great affinity for the older writer. And we can see the fruits of this in the great Swallows and Amazons series. The children’s imaginative world is fired by Stevenson – and especially Treasure Island. It’s a sort of royal line. The great storytelling tradition. Scott (thought I’ve never really been able to get on with him and besides, the narrative line started long, long before), Stevenson, Ransome.

I often think about tradition in literature. As writers, we’re all in one, whether we like it or not. We’re all influenced by other writers. We can’t help it, however original and unique we set out to be. And when I look at Authors Electric, I see the successors in the Stevenson-Ransome sequence. I certainly rate Ransome, the summit of my early reading experience, as an influence. I can’t sail, more’s the pity (I can barely even swim), but for narrative flow and mastery of the plain style he has been my most important mentor. But there are two of our number who are strongly in the line of descent.

First, Jan. A sailor, like Ransome, and, like me, a devourer of his books in childhood. And a writer who, in Silver and Blood, has the measure of Stevenson’s achievement in Treasure Island. It’s not a sequel, nor just an update. More a homage, to both its writer and its main character, Long John Silver, who is not just a hard-hearted, treacherous pirate but a person of deep contradictions, huge subtlety, complex, appealing even in the act of evil, a constant riddling puzzle, almost a rougher version of Hamlet without the self-questioning. Jan nearly had a fit when I said I thought Moonfleet was the better book. I’m beginning to think I may have been wrong.

And then there’s Julia. Her Strong Winds trilogy – The Salt-Stained Book, A Ravelled Flag and Ghosting Home are unashamed in showing their debt to Arthur Ransome. Ransome’s characters are constant role models for Julia’s. The imaginative worlds of Ransome and Stevenson are always there, under the surface – but these books are set in harsher times The crises are not make-believe or advanced forms of play. They are real, hard, stark and dangerous: they can kill. I’ve recently read them and now I’m reading them again to review (for Armadillo this time, not IEBR).

So here are two writers who understand and acknowledge their debts. I think we all should. It’s good sometimes to pause and ask, not what we will write next, not how we will sell what we’ve just written, but WHO we are as writers. How do we fit in to the scheme of things? Where are our literary antecedents, our influences? Where are the springs and sources of our imagination? It’s a good exercise just to stand and stare for a few moments!

Arthur Ransome: what a man. Jan, have you ever thought how his life parallels that of our dear old friend Jim Riordan. Like AR, Jim spent crucial years in Russia which shaped both their lives, like AR he married (in the end) a Russian woman. Like AR he wrote a lot of unforgettable books for children. How about doing a comparative literary study together?

Virtually bonkers

Does the internet make you mad? Discuss. I seem to spend so much time these days trying to find my way around the electronic world, I end up doing practically nothing. I’m about three quarters of the way through a huge and meaty thriller, and I have put pen to paper (so to speak) for so long I’ll have to read it all again to make sure where I’m up to. Likewise Facebook and Twitter and various blogs I read. I’m off to France in a few days time, and the book was meant to be finished.

On the up side, I’ve heard some fantastic music. And made some of my own. Which I, at least, enjoyed!

Till later, then.

Spreading it around a bit

Two friends of mine have written novels which I think are well worth sharing with you. The first is called No Place for Dinosaurs, a police procedural thriller written by an ex Detective Inspector from the North called John Morrison. It is unlike any other book in the ‘genre’ I’ve ever read. It reeks of authenticity, and shows the police up in a new light entirely. Today I’m giving you the first chapter, and exhorting you buy it from Amazon. For the cynics out there, I don’t have any financial interest in either of these books.

The second one, which also goes up on Amazon today, is short, punchy, and uncategorisable, written by a woman who calls herself Margaret McCann. In this age of Fifty Shades of Grey it won’t perhaps be as shocking as it would have been not long ago, which is a pity in a way. It’s about a young art student called only ‘J’ (the title of the book) who gets involved with a man called Chef, and ends up as a strangely willing sex slave. It’s truly weird, deeply felt, and very strangely pitched. Neither me nor ‘Margaret’ – who is in fact a well known and widely respected painter and photographer – is absolutely certain what it ‘means,’ but I’m happy to have published it on my Skinback Books imprint. Like many other fine volumes, it has done the rounds of ‘mainstream’ publishers and agents. Many of them praised it to the skies. None of them was brave enough to take it on.

As well as putting up ‘tasters’ for these books, I’ve written about them on my Authors Electric monthly blog. I might put up more extracts here soon. But they’re both cheap, and they’re both deeply kick-ass. Here are some links:

Extracts from the two books
My blogs at Author’s Electric
The Facebook page for Skinback Books
My Facebook page

Reaction, reaction

Lots of lovely things being said about Silver and Blood now – and lots of plaudits for the cover, done by Matti Gardner, working on a photograph by Alex Marrs – Next. they’ll be working up a cover for my follow up to Kicking Off, which is to be called They Came By Night – another big horror thriller featuring Rosanna (The Mouse) Nixon and Andrew Forbes.

The confusion over another of my ‘nasties’ continues apace. It was originally on Amazon under the title The Skinback Fusiliers, which I had to change for various reasons, and is now there as Killing Time at Catterick. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t find such concepts easy, so the wonderful reviews it had gathered didn’t get transferred, and the first one under the new title was by an extremely disgruntled ex soldier (he said) who thought it wasn’t nice about ‘our boys.’ I agree with him, but then, it wasn’t meant to be. And they certainly weren’t the targets. The way the government treats our armed forces is a horrendous scandal. Die for your country – and we’ll kick you onto the scrap heap. It was nominated for the Orwell Prize, however, and it’s got at least one better review now. A long job, though…

Incidentally, a couple of months back I asked here and on Facebook for comments on my proposed title for the thriller that became Kicking Off. I originally planned to call it Panopticon, but the feedback wasn’t all that good, so I went with Kicking Off. Then three weeks ago in the Guardian there was a review of a new novel. I’m not sure of its genre, but it was called – you’ve guessed it – Panopticon! Hope it does well for them…

Now, here’s the review of Silver and Blood. It’s in the online reviewing mag (or whatever you call online phenomena) the IEBR, run by Cally Phillips, the novelist and playwright.

Silver and Blood by Jan Needle
Posted by Julia Jones on June 26, 2012

“He’d risked Jim’s life, and saved it, and replaced his dead father in the secret spaces of his heart.”

Jan Needle’s Silver and Blood: Return to Treasure Island is more than a return, it is a re-imagining – a re-imagining that gives the main characters an emotional credibility which is significantly different both from Stevenson’s original and from Andrew Motion’s recent novel Silver: Return to Treasure Island.

Needle’s earlier writing for children – Albeson and the Germans, My Mate Shofiq, The Bully (all now available on Kindle) – is strongest in its depiction of naïve, confused, adolescent boys, often with harassed, inadequate, single mothers. Silver and Blood is a new book, action-packed and twenty-first century, but is instantly distinguished by this same understanding and empathy for the young hero. Jim Parker has lost his father; he and his mother are failing in business. He’s worried and he’s bored. This makes him easy prey for the first sinister visitor to the Crown and Cushion pub. “Jim guessed the captain was a murderer from the moment that he saw him in the weird and scar-faced flesh. He guessed he was a murderer, but he never thought he’d try to kill his mother and smash up their lives as well. Otherwise he might have done it differently.”

Unsurprisingly Jim is soon way out of his depth and Needle pulls off a masterstroke by introducing his version of Long John Silver into the confused and violent scenes that follow the captain’s death. This is much earlier than the character appears in Treasure Island itself. He has no name at this point, merely “a low voice, warm and friendly.” He wears a suit and tie and has “a broad tanned face, not like a criminal at all” – which merely goes to show how little poor Jim knows about wickedness at this stage.

Jim’s not stupid, however, and is sufficiently alert to sense that the Doctor and Clive Tregarron (the Squire Trelawny figure) may not be as straightforward as they seem. Casting doubt on the integrity of the professional-class characters is another of Needle’s welcome re-thinkings of the original. There is little that is straightforward in this fast-paced adventure: dead men return to life and the blind regain their sight. Double-crossers are themselves double-crossed. There is plenty of action (drugs, guns, treasure and speedboats), one especially good new character (the ship’s engineer) and some evocative descriptions of the island. Mum would have loved it, thinks Jim in his initial innocence, and later it reminds him of an iconic scene from Swallows and Amazons. “Real life was different though. Behind him he heard grunts and panting and the odd swearword.”

Jim has so much to deal with – fear, lies, pain and diarrhoea. It’s not surprising that his early encounter with Long John Golding’s reassuring, masculine strength has filled an emotional void that not all Golding’s subsequent betrayals can finally erase. This imaginative subtlety makes Silver and Blood an adventure story to be enjoyed by older children and adults alike.

“He was John Golding. Yes.”

Here’s the link, which will lead you to other reviews. It’s a good and useful site, and I’ve done a couple of reviews on it myself. All reviewers are professional writers.

For anyone who doesn’t know it, Authors Electric is a good site, too. A daily blog by about thirty professionals (including me).

Five Go Mad in the Falklands

Back in 1982, our dear leader Margaret Thatcher was in deadly trouble. She was considered to be a harsh and grating shopkeeper with a vicious streak, who was heading for oblivion at the next election. Then some nasty little fascist nutter called General Galtieri in Argentina decided – also for reasons of electoral unpopularity – to invade the Falkland Islands, to which his country had a claim. Like everybody’s claim to the islands it was legally dubious, and could only ever hope to be settled through legal processes. Neither Galtieri nor Thatcher were interested in such nonsense, obviously – they were politicians. There was kudos, and votes, to be won.

Much to the astonishment of the British – who had, however, just removed their naval presence from the area – the Argentinians were serious. They sent a small but determined force across the water, and quickly captured the place. Much to the astonishment of the world, and her own advisers, Maggie sent a task force 8,000 miles to get them back. Militarily, it was as near insane as makes no odds. To put it at its bleakest, if one of Argentina’s submarines had sunk the ocean liner Canberra that was carrying our troops (we had no troop ships, naturally – SO expensive!) the fallout would have been beyond belief. In the event, in the weeks of fighting, many soldiers and sailors were killed and maimed. More than nine hundred from both countries. Borges said: ‘It was like two bald men fighting over a comb.’ And now the islands are still British, although Maggie never held the promised referendum, and now Argentina is making belligerent noises once more, because the legal issues are still unresolved. Progress, eh?

I wrote a play about it at the time. A three part serial for Thames TV, which they decided would be best placed in their schools programming. It was called A Game of Soldiers, and the Government were horrified. It told the story of three Falklands kids who find a badly injured young Argentine conscript hiding in a sheep shelter and decide to kill him. Not because they are evil nasty little beasts, but because of the reason the task force went all those miles – it was a patriotic duty.

The government, in the person of Defence Minister John Stanley, were determined that it should not be shown. Pressure was put on ITV to pull it from the schedules, and all sorts of knocking stories went the rounds. At one stage it was described as being ‘Five Go Mad on the Falkland Islands’ in the hope that ridicule would do the trick. It did not. The government were told, politely, to go to hell. Brian Cowgill, for Thames, agreed in the end to have a voiced announcement before it was shown, pointing out it was a work of fiction. Possibly one of the neatest mickie-takes against a government in broadcasting history. ‘Please note – this play is fiction.’ Oooh – vicious…

One wonders if broadcasters would have been able to resist similar pressure these days. Unhappily, I quite seriously doubt it. There won’t be another Falklands war anyway – both countries have run their navies down to the point where it could be neither fought, nor defended. Eightthousand miles is a hell of a long way to row.

Anyway, the serial was shown, to critical acclaim, and was even nominated for a Bafta. It didn’t win it – that honour went to the least cutting edge contender of the year, Tony Hart’s drawing programme. Standing up to governments can only go so far! But Collins asked me to write it as a novel, which was extremely successful, and then as a play to be performed for schools. With typical publishers’ timing, they took it out of print, after twenty plus years, not long before the thirtieth anniversary of the war. On a news programme six months ago I saw tatty copies of the novel still being used in London classrooms, which is when we decided to redo it as a 99p ebook for Skinback Books

And if you want to see a bit of the original TV serial, someone’s put an episode on YouTube

My other most recent offering through Skinback is Silver and Blood, my modern take on Stevenson’s miraculous Treasure Island, which clashed most egregiously with Sir Andrew Motion’s sequel, called just Silver. I haven’t read his yet, but I’m getting great feedback on mine.

It’s a reimagining of the story for the 21st century, without parrots, wooden legs, and upper-class good guys pitched against the lowlife scum. Stevenson was shining a light on the accepted moralities of his time, and inviting people to work out what was really going on. Is Doctor Livesey, a Scot, really that much of a hero, for example? He boasts that he served with Butcher Cumberland,for instance – and Cumberland was known then as the brutal scourge of Scots. And Squire Trelawney, a pillar of his community, chose to search for stolen treasure that he had no right to, with a ship and crew that an honest man would have run a mile from.

Many of the people in my version are also pretty ‘challenging’ from a moral point of view. And like Stevenson, I like a bit of blood and guts. Throw away the flintlocks – try an AK47!

The covers for both books were done from photographs by a friend of mine called Alex Marrs, and designed by my son Matti Gardner

Silver and Blood available here.

All Skinback Books are here.


Up and running

Exploding jails are not the only excitement on the horizon. After much pain and headscratching,I’ve finally got Skinback Books up on the road. The first six titles are available on Kindle, with some of them also on Smashwords for people with different devices. But none of them will set you back a pound…

Four of the books are mine – two new, two reprints – and two are by my friend Barry Purchese, double Bafta award winning TV playwright who’s now pitched himself into prose. Very shortly ‘J’ by Margaret McCann will hit the virtual streets as well. That one, I promise you,is a real eye-popper.

The Unique Selling Point is their price. My first one is more than 115.000 words long. And it’s up on Kindle for 99p. As are all the others, and as will new books in the future be.

The idea is not to make a fortune, but to try and make a dent. Publishing in this country is deeply in the doodah, and things are getting worse. The big boys are as greedy as they are short-sighted, and the way they treat even long-established authors is terrible. This is not a personal bleat – quite frankly I’m at the stage now where I just want books out there, I don’t look to them for fame and fortune. Suck ’em and see – and if you don’t like the taste, you’ve spent less than a half a bus fare.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of what Kicking Off is all about.

When the cauldron of hatred that is Britain’s prisons last boiled over, it cost the country untold millions to put the lid back on. Then, there were fifty thousand banged up inside – now it’s almost double that. And trouble, as the Arab spring has shown, can spread like wildfire once it’s started. And race beyond control.

Critic Cally Phillips, on indieebookreview, said: “Jan Needle’s new novel offers a unique perspective on the social ills of our country and an uncomfortable insight into the powderkeg that is our prison system. From the first memorable image to the last page, the style is relentlessly tough and the complex plot will keep you gripped and guessing – and thanking your lucky stars that this is fiction. Or at least hoping that it never becomes fact.”

The spark that explodes the jails this time is the naked ambition of a politician gifted with the task of solving the crisis that’s flared up in our bleak Victorian fortress prisons. A playboy millionaire has been betrayed by the highest in the land, while an American gangster is set to be sprung by a squad of hitmen who will stop at nothing. Mix in a Glasgow hardman thirsting for revenge, and a governor who is more humane than the Prison Service can stand or stomach – and the cauldron of violence and hatred can only overflow – to spread across the land like cancer.

My second book, Killing Time at Catterick, was published last year as The Skinback Fusiliers, and has been put up for the Orwell Prize. It’s a warts and all look at the way the British Army treats some of the young men it sucks in with dreams of glory (or perhaps a wage packet.)

My second two are My Mate Shofiq, which was runner up for the Guardian Award and Albeson and the Germans, which is exciting, realistic and reckoned by kids to be very funny.

Barry’s books are designed for adults, but appeal to younger readers too. Grass Roots is the story – from the life – of an idealistic father who sets up a football team for the kids who don’t get chosen. All goes well until they begin to get successful. Then the punch-ups start…

Summertime Blues is set in the era of teds and paper nylon skirts, and dreams of stardom and the sexual revolution. It’s truly bittersweet.

Here’s a taster for KICKING OFF. It’s the prologue. The full story is violent, sexy, and moves like a rocket. There will be a sequel.


TO: XXXXXX. SECURITY CODING R+EI. (All restrictions)

Look, we’re in the shit. You know it, I know it, everyone with half a brain knows it, even OGL knows it. I’ve seen prisons in Ukraine more civilised than some of ours, I’ve met Guantanamo Bay warders with a greater grasp of human rights. More to the point, it’s going to blow, and I’d say very soon.

Brief rundown: Career criminals, the mentally ill, drug addicts, alcoholics. Gangsters, Yardies, Serbs, Albanians, Roma, Asians, and good old fashioned crims. Thugs, murderers, rapists, paedophiles, gunmen, terrorists. POA men completely disaffected, private sector worse. Worse paid, worse treated, worse pissed off. The madrasa problem, too, Stone Agers spreading like the plague. Rumour has it that some of ‘our’ God-botherers are jealous of the mullahs now, and one’s even converting. He says he’s lonely on a Friday afternoon.

It’s not just our friends on the other side of the House who’ve ignored the problem, no point in claiming that. We’ve also seen the cities burning, we also know what could cook up this summer. The police, the Mets particularly, have gone insane, and OGL looks more and more like a badger in the crosshairs. The numbers just go up and up, the pressure valve is lifting by the day. Who said prison works? What sort of raving lunatic? What happens when we hit the hundred thousand? How long does the lid stay on?

All right, the purpose of this note. For Christ’s sake keep it underneath your hat, but at the risk of sounding cynical, I think this is your chance. Sycophantic maybe, but I think it’s you we need, XXXXXX, you personally – that combination of brain and ruthlessness might be our only hope. OGL thinks so, too, he just needs a bit of prodding in the right direction. Think hard, be brilliant, don’t overplay your hand. Because, my friend, somebody’s got to get a grip. Let it be us, okay? I’m laying down the poison for you now.

PS Try and keep it in your pocket. Your dick, I mean. Believe you me, it doesn’t help.


OGL? R+EI? Internal memos? Dick? Are you mad? Redaction may not ever be enough.


Very possibly. But greater love hath no man – or woman either – than to give a lethal weapon to a friend. Be prepared. It’s going to happen soon.