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 ( 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


The original, on AE is at

I wonder if it’s the same for Father Christmas. You know what I mean – the speeding up of time. When I
was a lad a day was like a week, a day at school more like a term. And as I got older, time began to run amok.

This afternoon I was struggling to finish off a novella about Nelson before travelling down to Leicestershire for a pre-Christmas jolly with the rellies. Only about two thousand words to go, and the deadline seemed more than possible. It’s got to be done before I leave here, because the village that we’re heading for has no broadband to send it off from. Politicians’ promises. Aren’t they a hoot?

The day had been bitty, certainly – but handleable. (Do you like that word: it’s not copyrighted). Endeavour Press told me yesterday that Other People’s Blood would be going up today (that is, Nov 11) for free until the weekend. I dutifully spent lots of the next few hours twooting and faceboogeringabout and all the other modern jollities.

It was even worth the social mediation (another new word?) for that book, in some modern weirdo way. I mean, I’m really fond of it, it makes me sort of cry, so I want it to be read. The fact the bastards were getting it for nothing meant…well, how should a writer take that, in these troubled times? Just a pity it’ll be back to £2.99 by the time you lot get to know!

So the day was bitty, my back was aching from too much round-shouldery at the keyboard, but everything was – oh, bloody hell! Oh, holy smoke! (And here comes my favourite Chaucer quote): O womb, o belly, o stinking cod!

I’ve got a blog to do!

But surely not? It cannot be a month since the last one. That nice American tennis player used to put it rather well, remember: You must be………………..JOKING!

I looked at my lickle diary. Sure enough, the pages had gone brown. Spontaneous combustion. It’s nearly next year, dammit! And here I sit, with Horatio in extremis up the Rio San Juan, almost literally (beyond figuratively!) without a paddle.

And there sensation seekers, he’ll have to sit until I’ve titillated my fan base. Or wrote this blog, at least. What shall I write about? That’s the big shock, as they say on Tyneside.

Ah – a public service announcement. I’ll help people on their way through the festive misery. My Christmas gift to a waiting, hungry world.

Oh no, not hungry. That would spoil it.

Fact is, that earlier this week I invented a brilliant, fantastic diet. Not any old diet, but one which will reduce fat gits like me to shadders of their former selves, and it’s TOPICAL as well. And immensely cheap. Even that Osborne bastard will approve.

Here’s the secret. Last year I noticed that on the day after Boxing Day, Tesco sell off their surplus Christmas puddings for a quid apiece. And Tesco puds, whatever I may think of Tesco morals, are bloody fabulous. I bought the lot, from Tesco Chew Valley Road, Greenfield, Oldham. Seven puddings, seven pounds.

They last forever, believe me. Sugar is a preservative. Brandy is a preservative. And for your hundred pennies, you get both, in GREAT PROFUSION.

Last Monday – two days ago – having nothing to hand for luncheon, I opened one of these darlings – unheated, straight out of the cellophane – and allowed myself a little mouthful. And then another. And then (cont p94). Reader, I ate that bleeding pudding whole. Seven million calories or thereabouts. And it was wonderful.

But here’s where the dieting comes in. I hadn’t had a bite since the night before (I’m not a breakfast man), and I didn’t have another bite until about thirty hours later. AND I WASN’T EVEN HUNGRY!

So now I’ve cracked it. I shall write it up as a diet book (367 pages I’m told is best), with a picture of a domestic goddess with a pot of coke (double wordplay, note, and for the lawyers I mean Coca Cola naturally), and sell it for eighteen guineas. It will fly off the shelves.

And in three weeks time, of course, I can toddle down to Tesco (not necessarily in Greenfield, I’m told they have them all over) – and load up on more one pound puddings till me heart’s content. Like I said, even for Santa Claus himself time waits for no man. Or something.

And a very merry Christmas, and Gord bless us, one and all.

PS If any of you do read OPB, whether free or paid for, please put in a little crit on Amazon. Slag it off, by all means, but I’m told the number of reviews is what turns Joe Punter on, viz Reb’s latest post. Never mind the quality, feel the width…I’m not the only one who’s mad.

Other People’s Blood

Playing catch up

Things move too fast for me sometimes in the digital age. In the past week or so I’ve had one new book out with Endeavour Press – Other People’s Blood – – written it up for Hufpo – – brought out a new edition of my thriller Kicking Off – – and got halfway through a new book about Nelson as a young captain in the West Indies (as yet untitled).

And I’ve only just got round to updating this blog. Bad, bad man.

Other People’s Blood is the most topical, because its publication coincided to within 24 hours with a Panorama special investigation into British Army ‘death squads’ in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. My book treats the death squads, which were heavily denied throughout the Troubles and beyond, as a given. The public suspected they existed, and many British journalists were certain of it. Some indeed, under the hammer of the Official Secrets Act, were actually told. And also told that they could not write about them. Such is Britain’s idea of an open society.

In the book they are the wallpaper, so to speak. It is the story of a wildly sexy Protestant girl called Jessica, whose father is a business man with deep and murky connections to the British government. He is supposed to be a member of another secret organisation believed to have existed in the Province under the name of the Brotherhood. A sort of Freemasons for the very rich and powerful. Protestant, of course.

Jessica is also engaged to a Brit, called Martin Parr. He swans around Belfast and beyond on some sort of business which he never specifies, not even to Jessica. Who, frankly, does not care. She’s at University in Manchester, where she has systematically screwed, and screwed up, half the department, including lecturers. Jessica is a thoroughly modern woman – and by English middle class standards pretty well beyond the pale. (Which is ironic, because within The Pale was where the Protestants lurked historically, and beyond it were the Catholics).

It is a young Catholic called Rory that Jessica meets and falls in love with, however. Properly in love, like she’s never loved before. And Rory is reputed to have connections with the Provies, the gunmen, the murderers. Whether it is true or not does not matter, of course. Once the ball is rolling, pushed and accelerated by both politics and jealousy, the love affair is doomed. It is like Romeo and Juliet on crack cocaine.

Of all my thrillers so far I think it’s my favourite.And it won’t even cost you three quid! Sadly, it costs several of the protagonists their lives.

Off to sea once more…

Say what you like about t’internet, it gets me off my arse. Only a few weeks ago I was contacted by an ebook publisher I’d never heard of – well you wouldn’t have, would you? – and asked if I might like to let them publish a book or two. They’d read my stuff (some, not all – I’ve written so much over the years) and wanted to know if they could do my historical naval series. This is a run of four books featuring a man called William Bentley, who is more or less everything the usual fictional naval heroes aren’t. He’s brave all right, but in the first book, A Fine Boy for Killing, he’s a trainee sadist and an absolute bastard. Throughout the series he grows, but life doesn’t get any more romantic, and even the woman he falls in love with is an archetypal eighteenth century economic prostitute. As was Emma Hart, of course, the penniless Wirral girl who finally made it to being Lady Hamilton.

And died a destitute alcoholic in a Calais gutter.

So no, I said, I’m in the process of getting them ready to be ebooks myself, or rather my son Matti Gardner is. No worries, they cried – write us a novella in the same era. We love novellas, and they can cross fertilise each other.

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, so I got off me arse (see above). I wrote the book, The Devil’s Luck in double-quick time, and now, before your very eyes, it’s out on Amazon at £2.99. The publisher, Endeavour Press, have now asked for a series based around the life of Nelson – a subject I’ve been steeped in since I was a kid in Portsmouth. I’m starting soon!

Endeavour also did Death Order which I wrote about in my last blog – see below. By one of those remarkable coincidences, the Rudolf Hess mystery, which has been dormant for a few years, burst back into public view at exactly the same time, with stories in the Huffington Post, the Independent, and even the Daily Mail. The book has been selling like the proverbial hot cakes – and at £2.99 is actually cheaper than most hot cakes a baker sells these days.

It has had fantastic reviews, as well, and is now getting them on Amazon, as you can see by clicking on the link above. And the great Hess mystery just goes on getting more and more mysterious. I ain’t complaining!

The Devil’s Luck, though, is something or a new departure for me. It’s set about twenty years earlier than A Fine Boy for Killing (which I’m hoping will be out in a couple of weeks) and only one of the characters appears in the later book. That is Daniel Swift, who is the captain of the Welfare in A Fine Boy, and an utter brute. In the new book, though, he is a young lieutenant, and his character is neither fully lost nor fully formed. I can hardly wait to see how he develops.

The hero is a younger sailor called Charlie Raven. He falls foul of Captain Hector Maxwell, who considers him to be a coward, and decides to break him. It’s a fast-moving story, featuring a chase by open boats across the English Channel. ‘From Ushant to Scilly is Thirty Five Leagues.’ And it’s hell.

Thank God the sailing season’s almost over so that I can work without regret! Please God keep the piles at bay…