Sunday, November 25, 2007


Long ago, in another life, I took a walk round the office corridors and thought about what lay behind the closed doors: quite a number of men of around my own age (then 55-60), grey-haired, grey-suited, grey-faced. Some of them weren't any too well. I decided it was time to go. So I did.

I retired from full-time employment. After which, of course, I had all the time in the world. Ha! If you only knew. First law of the universe: everything takes longer than you think.

Anyway, at some point thereafter I started blogging. Which took up an increasingly large amount of time, albeit in a most enjoyable and interesting way. Then, back in February this year, I gave notice here on the GOB that I was no longer going to be blogging on a regular basis. Why? Mainly because of the need to do other things, things which were either equally or more pressing.

Move forward a few months and it so happens that I have been able to blog fairly regularly once again. Now, however, I find that there are, also once again, numerous family and personal commitments which really do have a much higher call on my time than the blog.

What I found back in Feb was that it is all very well in principle, saying that you're going to do less; but if you do anything at all, then people assume (not unreasonably) that it is business as usual. So they write and ask you to review books, or they mention interesting things that they've seen on the web, and so on. And for all of these requests and pieces of info I was, and am, deeply grateful. Because I've found some amazing books and essays that way. And it is hard to disappoint people by ignoring what they say; it makes you feel bad, and it annoys the people who've taken the trouble to write.

So, the only sensible thing to do, I feel, if the quart will demonstrably not fit into the pint pot, is to stop blogging altogether. Which is what I intend to do, at least for a while. Call it a sabbatical. I hope -- and even intend -- to be back one day. But it will probably be a year.

As I also noted back in Feb, I am not the first blogger to recognise this problem. See Mad Max, Miss Snark, Poddy Mouth. And if you look again at Mad Max's last few posts, you will begin to suspect that the pressure of blogging on top of a more than full-time job did indeed make him a little mad. I'm not in that position, fortunately (or so I kid myself). But I do have other things to do which are undeniably more important than tapping away here.

In the meantime, the blog will continue to sit here, as a resource. There's well over a million words on it now, and if you wonder whether I've ever mentioned so and so, I probably have. Use the search instructions in the top of the right-hand column. For the moment, however, I won't be adding anything new.

Thanks for visiting, see you sometime, and best wishes for now.

Friday, November 23, 2007

More short reviews

R.W. Holder: How Not to Say What You Mean

Please take note: This is a perfect Christmas present for a bookish person. It is, in effect, a dictionary of American and British euphemisms, and it's also an interesting example of how a non-fiction book can have a long and profitable life, subject to periodic revisions and repackaging.

The book began life twenty years ago, published by Bath University Press, a small academic publishing company with which I was then associated. After the hardback edition was exhausted, the rights were sold on to Faber. Faber kept it in print for five years or so, and when the rights reverted I sold the book, on behalf of the author, to OUP.

Well, I say sold. The book sold itself. All I had to do was write the right sort of letter to the right person. OUP brought it out in 1995, retitled and rebadged it in 2002, and it's now in its fourth, revised edition. The Financial Times called it 'a very funny collection', which it is, and the Sunday Telegraph described it as 'great fun, but not for the maiden aunt'. Available worldwide.

R.W. Holder: The Fight for Malaya

At the end of the second world war, the later lexicographer of euphemisms found himself participating in the war in Malaya. The Fight for Malaya chronicles that period, and is subtitled 'The Jungle War of Maurice Cotterill'.

This is an astonishing story. Maurice Cotterill had been in Malaya for fifteen years before the Japanese invaded, and when they arrived he took to the jungle. Working with guerrillas of Chinese descent, he overcame appalling conditions and survived the war.

This is a book of specialised interest, of course, but if you know an old man or woman who remembers Malaya in that period, they are bound to enjoy this book.

It ain't easy to get hold of, being published by Editions Didier Millet in Kuala Lumpur. The ISBN is 978-981-4217-20-0. Select Books offer it online, as do Brendon Books. If all else fails, send me an email (see profile, top of right-hand column), and I will put you in touch with the author.

While you're buying this one for Grandad you might as well buy Dr Holder's memoir of the same period and place, Eleven Months in Malaya. This has been warmly welcomed by many old Malaya hands, and the ISBN is 9814155136. It's a bit more widely available than the Cotterill book: if you google the title you will find it on offer at a number of UK bookstores, eg Blackwells.

David Loye: Tangled Tales of the Book Trade

This is what used to be called, I think, a conceit. It is written by a man who is possibly even older and grumpier than I. It takes the form of a series of reported dreams, or nightmares, in which 115-year-old author Dilbert Dickens describes some of the most famous authors and scientists of the past century as they attempt to achieve publication of their books and ideas in the modern world of high-powered trade publishing. Sad to report, they don't have a lot of luck.

The result is an entertaining sort of romp, but it does reveal, I further regret to say, that the overall author, David Loye, has a distressingly jaundiced and cynical view of modern-day publishing. I cannot imagine what would justify such an attitude.

Tangled Tales is published by the Benjamin Franklin Press, a firm which deserves a moment or two of your time.

Emmett James: Admit One

Emmett James hails from England. He grew up in Croydon, finished his schooling in Cambridge, and in the 1990s went to Hollywood to pursue a (successful) career as an actor. Admit One is a memoir about his early experiences ('as a kid') in the cinema. No, not that kind of experience. It's about the fascination of film. It takes the form of a fond recollection of the films which are most memorable to him, and it links them to the story of his life (so far).

Emmett's theory is that the key to experiencing film is context, i.e. 'the environment, mood, personal history and circumstances in which a person sees a film'. I absolutely agree. Context, in that sense, is crucial to our appreciation of any art form. As I have remarked elsewhere, a joke told in German may be a very good joke, but if you don't speak German it don't actually mean very much.

It is a clever device, imho, to link an autobiographical memoir (is that a tautology?) to a series of films, and I think it works very well.

The book is published through Wheatmark publishing services, an outfit which seems to have done a splendid job.

Clary Antome: Family Blog

Speaking of good jobs, in printing terms, Family Blog is another one, this time produced via Booksurge.

Here we have the twenty-first-century equivalent of the eighteenth-century epistolary novel: Family Blog is 'a humorous modern-day saga of an uprooted European family, told through a medley of blogs that each member is writing without knowledge of the others'. There are three sisters and two parents here, and each of them has a skeleton or two in the cupboard -- sorry, closet. You get, as with Rashomon, several versions of the same series of events.

Clever, and well done.

Clary Antome, we are told, 'is a young Southern-European female hominid with some experience of being tossed around the planet'. Family Blog is her first novel. Poke around in the material provided by Ms Antome, e.g. the advance reviews, and you will find some seriously weird stuff.

Andrew F. O'Hara: The Swan

Andy O'Hara very kindly sent me a copy of this book, but he asked me not to review it. OK, I won't. But I will mention it.

Mr O'H is the driving force behind the Jimston Journal. The Swan, subtitled 'Tales of the Sacramento Valley', is a collection of stories inspired by the people who live in the valley today. The author says that he was delighted to find that at least one of his stories was highly offensive to a few people, so I think he must be doing something right.

Details et cetera here.

Peter Anthony: A Town Called Immaculate

A Town Called Immaculate is the latest in the Macmillan New Writing series (actual publication date 7 December). This series has usually featured a remarkably high degree of professionalism in what are, by definition, first (published) novels, and this one is no exception.

The book is set in small-town, rural America, where a Vietnam-traumatised and bankrupt farmer, Ray Marak, is beginning to become unhinged. And it's Christmas Eve.

This book is, I think, harder to categorise than many MNW books, and it belongs, I suppose, in that old-fashioned mainstream novel slot which seems to be out of favour with most publishers. The author himself says that he likes to think of the book as literary fiction, but perhaps it could fall under the family saga or the thriller category as well.

For more detail, excerpts, and so forth, go here.

Bill Liversidge: A Half Life of One

Bill Liversidge will be known to some readers of this blog as the author of another blog, View from the Pundy House. He began that blog about two years ago, with the express intention of putting his novel A Half Life of One in front of the reading public by one means or another. And as it turns it, he's succeeded rather well.

What's the novel about? Nick Dowty is 'trapped in a happy marriage, and staggering beneath the burden of being a good husband and a loving father'. But disaster strikes. What is the half life of a nuclear family in those circumstances? One hour? A week?

As you will see if you visit Bill's blog, he has gathered together some very good reviews of this book from the likes of Maxine Clarke and John Baker, both of whom I would rate as no mean judges. I see from the dedication page that Bill has also had encouragement from Lynne Scanlon, a lady who would not, I suspect, encourage any but the talented.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

You thought you had problems

Writing is dificult enough for most of us, but if you're autistic it presents a different set of problems. Kevin Cann, himself autistic, has posted some thoughts on the issue, using his friend's blog to host the essay (18 November).

There has been much discussion in the UK recently about teaching children to read. Well, we've only had compulsory education for 135 years or so, and you will appreciate that it takes a while to sort out the best way of doing things.

Anyway, one good sign. Richard Morrison reports in the Times that, at a primary school known to him, on the edge of a 'troubled housing estate', some of the parents have been helping teacher along. In one class of 30, six of the kids have been taught to read and write well by their Mum and Dad. Er, except that they've been taught to read and write in Polish.

Now here's a pleasant surprise. An email arrives from Jyoti Guptara, one of the teenage Guptara twins who were mentioned here a year or so ago (end of the post) as authors of Conspiracy of Calaspia.

When I first mentioned them, the Guptara twins were lined up for publication in the UK by Aultbea; but that did not happen, so they remain unpublished here (or in the US). However, Conspiracy of Calaspia became a bestseller in India; and Mondadori, the largest Italian publisher, has bought rights to Books 1 - 3 in their epic fantasy saga Insanity. Rowohlt, a venerable German publisher, has not only paid a six-figure advance, but has announced that Calaspia will be the lead Young Adult novel in its 100th anniversary year, 2008. The book will be released in March at the Leipzig Book Fair with a first print run of 100,000 copies.

Not bad, eh? The twins have several web sites, including, of course, one on MySpace, but start here.

By the way, those of you who read a great deal on-screen may be glad of a tip that I came across a year or two ago. Right click on the Windows desktop, then go properties>appearance tab>effects. In the dialog box, tick 'Use the following method to smooth edges of screen fonts' and select Clear Type.

To my eye, this makes screen type easier to read, and I have not found any disadvantages.

The second book in Thomas Quinn's Venetian series will be out on 10 December. St Martins Press is the publisher and Barnes and Noble are pushing it. The Sword of Venice offers historical derring-do, war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, intrigues of the powerful papacy, conflict between the Ziani and Soranzo families, and so forth.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


If you have requested a free book or two, please be patient. I am working my way through the requests on a first-come, first-served basis. Not everyone will get their first choice, I'm afraid, and I may run out of books altogether -- but in either case I will let you know.

How long can it possibly take to parcel up a few books and send them off? Ha! You would be surprised.

I have long, long, long since given up expecting English schoolteachers to be able to spell. But one does have this vague, lingering hope that people who work in the book trade might be able to do a bit better. No chance, sadly.

Publishers Lunch offers quite an interesting story about a UK-based wholesaler who, because of various kinks in the exchange rates, and odd contractual quirks about who can sell what where, is able to sell books dirt cheap, more or less anywhere in the world. (And no, I don't think that should be dirt cheaply, thank you, despite various attempts to convince me that it should.)

But suppose we go to the web site of said exciting new wholesaler. What do we find on the front page? We find this:

'Broadwater will provide all book business’s with the ability to source from worldwide stocks, giving huge choice and the quickest delivery times.'

I spent some of the best years of my life teaching English to small boys. I don't know why I bothered. Nobody cares any more.

I have discovered, more or less by accident, that Vanity Fair is the equivalent of what Esquire used to be fifty years ago, i.e. the home of some of the very best journalism around. On the shelf it looks like just another glossy magazine for women to leaf through under the hairdryer. But it ain't. Read the latest editorial and see.

Also, don't miss Dominick Dunne on the Phil Spector verdict, and O.J.

Now here's a novelty: a short-story competition with a generous prize and no entry fee. But then it is organised by an eccentric outfit.

Eric Walker seems to think that only Americans object to taxes. This cannot be true, surely?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Really short reviews (I hope)

In yet another forlorn attempt to do justice to a dozen or so books which really do deserve to be mentioned, here are some quickies. More to follow soon.

David Isaak: Shock and Awe

This is a Macmillan New Writing publication, and it's unusual in that series (though not unique) in that it's by an American. How come? Basically, the Americans thought the theme was too hot to handle. Said one editor: 'The fact that the bad guys are Americans makes this a hard sell for us.' See David's blog for the backstory.

Essentially Shock and Awe is a thriller: modern, hard-edged, full of action, professional in its approach and skills; there are some superb descriptions of action at sea. It's long, but then they all are these days. It's intelligent: the author asks questions that other US writers don't care to ask; and it is deeply cynical, with good reason, about the motives of the US government. The book is also sensitive: we get, for instance, an insight into the mind of a lapsed Christian who has had an abortion. And either David Isaak has written before, or else he's been practising.

This is not a book to read if you're the kind of person who lies awake at night worrying about the future. But if you're the normal don't-give-a-shit type, this will entertain you.

Gladys Hobson: Awakening Love

A total contrast to the above. Awakening Love is a book for women readers, undoubtedly. And Englishwomen of a certain age, at that.

I read this book before publication, and was pleased to provide a supportive quote for the cover. Modern young women have absolutely no idea what it was like to grow up and come of age in the 1940s and '50s. Many young women then (though by no means all) lived in almost total ignorance of the 'facts of life', and the result, all too often, was disaster. I was particularly impressed by this portrait of a rather naive young woman struggling to make her way in the world.

Further details and sample chapters et cetera are on the publisher's web site.

Steve Almond: (Not That You Asked)

Another total contrast. This is a non-fiction (sort of) book, a collection of essays, by an American humorist with a pretty good track record. It's subtitle, or principal title perhaps, is Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions. (I like that comma after Exploits; which reveals one of my own obsessions.)

Humor, or humour as we Limies have it, is the key here. The book is indeed droll, and it would make a good gift for a bookish, mid-Atlantic sort of friend. Mr Almond often makes fun of himself, which is thoughtful of him, and you can read extracts and stuff on his web site.

Charles McCarry: The Tears of Autumn

In the UK, Overlook Press continue to put out new editions of Charles McCarry's masterly series of espionage novels; the series has been discussed here before. One of the latest (scheduled, I see, for February 2008) is The Tears of Autumn. It was first published in 1975, and it provides one of the earliest and most convincing explanations (other than the official one) for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

This novel has been widely recognised as one of the best by one of the most thoughtful political, and mercifully non-literary, novelists of our time. And that's all you need to know really. If you haven't read any McCarry, start at the beginning of the canon and go on to the end.


Finally, this blog does not really do poetry as I am completely unqualified as a judge, but a couple of volumes have come my way which are noteworthy as examples of what can be done these days for comparatively little money.

Time was when a poet had little chance of publication. But now, as we all know, publication is a fairly cheap option. And poets who go around giving talks and public readings and the like can carry a few copies with them, and sell on the spot.

First example: The Primrose Path and other poems, by Bob Taylor. The poet here is a retired Yorkshire miner, one who had a less than happy time in the miners' strike of 1984, but survived it to become a poetically inspired Christian. Details and samples at Magpie's Nest Publishing.

The second example also features Bob Taylor, with Gladys Hobson and guest writers. Northern Lights is a collection of poems and stories from the north of England. A number of writers here are survivors of the Christopher Hill debacle. This is also a Magpie's Nest publication.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Words of the week

Leigh Russell is smart enough to have a three-book contract (with No Exit Press) for a series of UK-based crime novels featuring a female police officer, DI Geraldine Steel. On his blog, he writes weekly about the process of writing.

Penguin, I hear, has successfully defended itself in a copyright case (link from the Bookseller). Which proves absolutely nothing to me except that it is most unwise to get involved in these battles. Lord Goodman used to say that anyone who sued for libel was demonstrably mad, and to my mind the same applies to copyright, which knobs on.

I speak here of individuals, of course. For companies it's different. Penguin, for example, can certainly afford to pursue breach of copyright cases where international, deliberate, and organised piracy is concerned. In fact, can hardly afford not to.

Ron Hogan on Galleycat reports that big publishers are deliberately making royalty payments late, and paying less than is due, in the hope that agents and writers won't notice.

Nothing new here. I remember, about thirty years ago, reading an article in the Financial Times. A tradesman (plumber or some such) was getting regular work from a big firm, but his invoices were ignored. Eventually he managed to speak to someone in the big firm's accounts office who airily told him, 'Oh, we never pay anything until we get a writ.'

So, from then on, the plumber submitted his invoices monthly. With each one he enclosed a letter from his solicitor (lawyer) threatening legal action if the bill was not paid within twenty-eight days. This letter cost him £50 a time, a charge which, naturally, he added to the big firm's bill. From then on, no problem. Bills paid on time, tradesman happy.

Maybe agents should do the same?

Meanwhile, of course, if you want to know what big-time publishers really think about writers (ungrateful little sods, apparently) then Ron Hogan can give you an example.

Gee whiz. Ron Hogan (a busy feller) also points out that Marion Boyars has just published a book about book blogs. (Marion Boyars? Into books about the internet?) Anyway, no one's ever contacted me about it, so I suppose I ain't in it. Not, frankly that it would trouble me. Nothing Marion Boyars ever did in the past was ever of any interest to me. Far too highbrow. The lady herself is deceased by the way, but she had her admirers.

Cory Doctorow, at Locus Online, provides a very useful and succinct account of copyright in general and the Creative Commons licences in particular.

I can't emphasise too much that it is important for anyone reading this blog to read Doctorow's piece (or something like it, if you can find it). It contains information which is essential if you care about books and publishing, not to mention the other media.

In passing, you will also discover why anyone who knows anything about copyright is obliged to spit every time they speak the word 'Disney'.

Dust Jacket Review is a newly launched resource for book lovers. It will take some time to explore this site, I feel, and you need to sign up to gain access to the full range of features. There are, I am told, some sixty of my own book reviews on the site somewhere (the GOB is issued under a Creative Commons licence).

Not everyone is happy about the free use of their work, especially if no one asks their permission. A number of Welsh writers have taken a dim view of what the National Library of Wales is up to.

Publishers Lunch rightly finds it intriguing that, in the music biz, some performers are issuing their stuff through specific outlets only. E.g., the Eagles' latest album via Walmart, Paul McCartney through Starbucks. Lessee now.... books? It's a question of when, not if, suggests PL.

Crumbs. PL also reports that you can order a one-off book in which your child features in adventures with established media characters.

I don't know who wrote the press release, and if they were working for me I'd sack them, but eventually we get to the following: 'In days, the child will receive a timeless, one-of-a-kind story where they appear on every page of an exciting travel adventure with Dora, helping to save Boots the monkey.'

Whatever else may be said, it seems to me that this operation requires some seriously well organised firms to collaborate with some reasonably clued-up parents, digitally speaking, and it will be interesting to see if it catches on.

Ah, now here is the kind of man I really have time for. A guy who gets seriously pissed off by the enthusiasm, energy and drive of all them wannabes. In particular, Peter L. Winkler is grinding his teeth over all this Write a Novel in No Time At All and Get Rich and Happy and Have Fantastic Sex Into the Bargain stuff.

His suggestion: let's have a month in which no one writes anything. There's far too much of it around as it is.

The man has a point.

Eric is very keen on books and is building up substantial lists of blogs, software, publishers, and more. Several languages available.

Leslie Hurst commented that John Twelve Hawks's number two book (number one being The Traveller) hasn't made much impression. And my search of the Publishers Marketplace archives (available only to subscribers) reveals that, after July publication, it never got higher than 24 on the New York Times bestseller list. And on most lists it didn't get that high. Which is no surprise to me.

The Times has an interesting article about ghost-writing. It should be read after, or before, my own essay on the same subject. Subsequently you should be equipped for a new and dazzling career.

Live in New York? The 20th Annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair takes place on Saturday, December 1st and Sunday, December 2nd, at the New York Center for Independent Publishing at 20 West 44th Street in New York City. Details here.

Clancy Sigal has recently been awarded west coast PEN's 'lifetime achievement' award. And he was presented with it by Gore Vidal, no less. Now that is impressive.

Is the net good for writers? That is the question posed by Ten Zen Monkeys, and it would probably take ten or twenty of same to figure it out. Unfortunately the Ten etc piece got up my nose fairly early on and my concentration faded. But I agree with the commenters at the end: let's have more women. (Link from Martin Rundkvist.)

Samuel Edmonson showed me the Literary Rejections site, where lots of writers go to have a jolly good moan and join the massive crowds of those who have had lots of rejection slips and expect to receive a lot more.

Yeshua, it seems, is the Jewish name for Jesus, as in Jesus of Nazareth, and alone has lots of books about him. One of these is by Edmund Jonah, who has chosen to write up the life of Jesus in the form of a novel.

Edmund has an interesting background in that he was a Jew who was educated by Jesuits. Like many another author, Edmund had two agents who enthusiastically offered his novel around, but without success; hence Lulu.

Lapham's Quarterly is a new (US) history magazine started by Lewis Lapham, who was editor of Harper's for many years. The first issue is just out. Entitled 'States of War,' it includes both historical texts (ranging from Thucydides to Jessica Lynch) and contemporary commentary from Fritz Stern, Caleb Carr, Tom Holland, and John Mueller. By connecting the present with the past, the magazine hopes to place current political events within the context of their historical antecedents.

Just out, Mary Scriver's biography of her former husband, Bob Scriver: sculptor in bronze in the Beaux Arts style.

What is the Oxford dictionary's word of the year? You'll never guess.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The truth about short stories

As you will see, from the next two paragraphs, I began to write this post thinking it would be quite short. But in fact it deserves to be longer, because as I clicked on a few links I found something a bit special. I originally began as follows:

Can you stand it? I'm not sure I can. But there's yet more discussion of whither the short story over on Galleycat, with links to more stuff thereafter.

And that's all I was going to say, really. Until I casually began to look at some of the comments at the end of Larry Dark's guest post on the NBCC blog, which is linked to by Ron Hogan on Galleycat. There I found a comment by Samuel Edmonson which kind of took my breath away. Here is just part of what he says about what he, and I, regard as the literary-magazine racket.

First of all, commercial magazines pay money and for working writers such as myself it's a job, a career, we earn a living wage; the tiny literary magazines pay nothing or close to it. So to get your stories published in them, you actually have to PAY because even if you sell a story for $100 you'll never recoup the cost of postage, copies, equipment, and so on. It is impossible to run a business on it. It is not a career. You need another job (in academe, of course).

Secondly, these journals are tiny, no one reads them except for academics who are trying to get published in them. You are so completely wrong about their impact and by the weakness of your argument I suspect you know it -- these literary journals have no impact on the world at all. But as a writer, I want to be READ. I'm writing for the man on the street, not for the politically correct chair of some college's English department.

Thirdly, the academic journals strongly, strongly favor teachers and MFA graduates. Read any of these academic journals and you'll see that most of the poetry and prose is from the academics. The writing, the worldview, the ideas, the very words are all so insular -- and if you operate outside of that world, they will ignore you. They have to support their buddies. Spend a few hours to put the names and their affiliations in a spreadsheet and you'll see what I mean about connections. And if you're not only MFA-less but also politically incorrect, you might as well save your stamps because they'll never, ever touch what you've sent.

Now I don't know who Samuel Edmonson is, and Google doesn't offer much enlightenment. But one thing's for sure: he punches above his weight. What is more, he agrees with me, so naturally I admire him. See my post of 16 October, which contains links to my earlier pieces about the official and true histories of the short story.

None of which, however, really solves my problem, which is finding short stories, week in and week out, that are the kind of thing I actually want to read. I suppose the only solution is to write my own.

More comment (brief) on Mason Fiction. And there's more about Stephen King on short stories in The Smart Set; if, as I said at the beginning, you can stand it; and I for one couldn't.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Short pants and miniskirts

UK publisher Picador has decided, not unreasonably, that an enhanced online presence will aid marketing, and one of the features offered is a blog, on which various known (and some yet to be known) names make an appearance. General discussions appear, as well as pieces about Picador books.

Picador, it seems, have recently decided to 'launch its new fiction in dual hardback and paperback editions, in a bid to combat the ailing market for hardback literary fiction. The move raises serious questions about the future of the hardback literary novel, which Picador publisher Andrew Kidd described as a "moribund format".' So says the Bookseller, reported by Literary Saloon.

PS Publishing have also revised their web site and this is well worth a visit. PS (UK based indie) do science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime novellas, novels and short-fiction collections. They also publish non-fiction titles and a quarterly short fiction digest magazine, Postscripts.

Another independent and interesting UK outfit is the Legend Press. This is the publisher of William Coles's The Well-Tempered Clavier, which I mentioned the other day.

Today in Literature appears, as its name suggests, daily, and each day's short piece is about an event or person in literature whose anniversary, of some kind, today is. This might well help to make the teaching of Eng Lit less tedious for all concerned. And you can get it delivered by email.

Iain Manson tells me that a thriller by my soundalike, Michael Alan, is well worth reading. Entitled The Lorelei Effect, it has been published by YouWriteOn, and sample chapters are available online.

Over at the Pundy House, Bill Liversidge continues to describe what it's like, in the real world, trying to market a self-published book to UK booksellers. The reading of which calls for strong nerves, a well developed sense of humour, and probably, one feels, most of a bottle of whisky.

Peter Wright, editor of the UK Mail on Sunday, is having to wrestle with the problem of how much to give away free online. Here, courtesy of Edmond Clay, is his current view: 'To get traffic on a web site you have to publish free and encourage as many people as possible to read it. We encourage people like Drudge to aggregate our content because it means more people are see [sic] it and come back to browse the site. Whether that is the correct answer I can’t tell you, but it’s what we’re doing a[t] the moment.'

The Friday Project finds another blog which justifies a book. (Info also from Edmond Clay.)

And, finally from Edmond Clay, a bit about fire. Edmond lives in the area of those Californian forest fires that you've been hearing about. He says that this resident's account gives a pretty good impression of what it's like.

Marilyn Saklatvala wonders whether she has found A New Way to Do Old Things no. 95, and I think she may have.

Marilyn, writing as M.J. Sak, has published a children's book via Lulu: The Stone Summons. In the book, one of the characters (Alex) writes a blog. She had hoped that a mainstream publisher might publish the book, and, as part of the marketing, run a competition for a youngster to write Alex's blog. In the end, having to resort to Lulu, she thought what the hell, might as well write the blog myself. Which she did.

Now that is interesting, and I haven't heard of it being done before.

In more orthodox style, P.K. Munroe has launched a blog to help along The Thursday Night Letters. Blokes having ideas in pubs, but also doing something about them.

How do youall feel about the Writers Digest? They are, for the sixteenth time, running a competition for self-published books. And the entry fee is $100. Well, that should keep out the riff-raff. (Link from G.R. Grove: a medieval Welsh storyteller for the modern world.)

Are there any teenage girls reading this blog? If so, kindly make yourselves known to me, with photographs. Heh heh heh. Actually, what I really mean is, go take a look at Poppy, because it's supposed to be just for you.

Fortuitous typos no. 94: On the Creative Commons blog, Michelle Thorne reports that the CC Salon London will be held at the Crown and Anchor, 22 Neal St, Covert Garden (on the 20th of November 2007).

I like that. For them as lives abroad, it should be Covent Garden; originally, of course, Convent Garden. Get thee to a nunnery, Michelle.

Parts 2 and 3 of Barry Eisler's discussion of the effects of the web, and other changing technology, on the book world are now available at Buzz, Balls & Hype. 'I'd wager,' says Eisler, 'that the average reader doesn't know, and doesn't give a damn anyway, who publishes James Patterson.' So would I. Said so on 8 February 2005, in a post which you might like to read before, or after, sampling Mr Eisler.

See also my thoughts on whether big-time authors really need a publisher at all. These are buried in the middle of my general post of 18 December 2006, under the sub-heading Here, Kitty, Kitty. Everything that I said then remains true today. It's only a matter of time. And Jason Epstein, as you would imagine, influenced my thinking.

This blog does not do politics, but we do pay attention to freedom of speech, and to the rational discussion of important issues. On Tuesday I referred to a discussion in the Times of the row about mentioning Enoch Powell's 1968 speech, and on Wednesday, I'm pleased to say, Simon Heffer, in the (right-wing) Daily Telegraph took up more or less the same position as the Times's Marxist columnist.

Heffer is unusual in having actually read Enoch Powell's famous 1968 speech, which the Telegraph helpfully makes available online. If you do read it, which most of those who talk about it apparently have not done, then it is hard to disagree with the contention that Enoch was right about immigration, as he was about most other things.

So why is it so difficult, one may ask, for sensible and reasonable people to accept that, and then to move on to discussing how best to exploit the undoubted benefits which (controlled) immigration brings, and how best to cope with the undoubted problems which also arise?

I note, in passing, that when I came to use the digital workstation in my local camera shop yesterday afternoon, it was displaying text in Polish.

I long ago gave up trying to keep track of all the good crime writers, even the British ones, and here's another one: Martin Edwards.

Sgt Mom, aka Celia Hayes, is taking positive steps (see post of 2007-11-06) to market her latest, To Truckee's Trail. A group of people who 'met' in an discussion group for writers of POD or small-press historical novels are getting together. All of them were 'stymied by the literary-industrial complex', and are now marketing their books themselves.

The group began as a way to swap tips and encouragement -- now they're putting together a glossy newsletter to publicise some of their books. For details of what they are up to, visit the Independent Authors' Guild's new web site.

iGavel is an online auction house which sometimes has lit'ry things, such as this rare Irving Penn item.

Londoners, Publishing News reports, will soon have the benefit of a free literary magazine. It will be a 16-page, bi-weekly, tabloid-format enterprise, with 'a broad variety of high quality content, ranging from short stories to cartoons and stimulating non-fiction, from both up-and-coming young writers and more high-profile published authors'.

It's the 'high quality' bit which worries me. If it's to be the usual creative-writing school kind of fiction, readers will not bother after week one. If, on the other hand, we have more commercial short stories, then maybe. But who is going to write them? Especially if, as seems likely, writers are going to be encouraged to do it for the exposure.

Shelfari has a new widget.

From time to time I have expressed the thought here that, at least as far as the UK is concerned, subsidy of the arts from public money is undesirable in principle and produces mostly ghastly stuff in practice. Now it turns out that quite a few artists and writers feel that applications for funding really aren't worth the time and trouble in any case. You are required, it seems, to give up your artistic independence. Thanks to Elberry for the link.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ms O'Beirne attacks her critics

You may remember the controversy about Kathy O'Beirne and her 'memoirs'. It was referred to here several times, notably on 20 September 2006, a post which, thanks to the peculiarities of Google, has attracted nearly 90 comments.

In brief, Ms O'Beirne wrote an autobiography/memoir about her early life in Ireland. This book is known in the UK as Don't Ever Tell, and in Ireland, Australia, and the USA its title is Kathy's Story.

In this book, Kathy O'Beirne claimed, among many other things, that she was beaten by her father and sexually abused by two boys from the age of 5 before being sent away to an institution. At the age of 10 she was, allegedly, repeatedly raped by a priest and whipped by nuns. Later she was forced to take drugs in a mental institution.

Subsequent to the publication of Kathy's book, her family went on record to deny, fairly comprehensively, Kathy's account of these events. 'There is not a shred of evidence,' they said, 'to support such outlandish claims.'

The O'Beirne story has been subject to extensive discussion, not least in the Irish media, because the book paints such a dark picture of Irish society in general. Now an email from Florence Horsman-Hogan, forwarded by Rory O'Connor, alerts me to what happened when Kathy O'Beirne was interviewed live on the Irish TV show Ireland AM on Tuesday this week.

Ms O'Beirne found herself up against one Hermann Kelly, who claims that her book is a fraud and has written a book of his own to prove it. (An extract from Kelly's book appeared in the Daily Mail in October. Title: Kathy's Real Story; published by Prefect Press; wholesaled by Gardners.) You can read all about what happened next in the Irish Independent, but basically it was Jerry Springer with an Irish lilt to it.

My email information says that 'Mark Cagney asked Ms O'Beirne about her accusation of sexual abuse against a priest in her book - Fr Fergal O'Connor. Not only did Ms O'Beirne deny such an allegation, but for some strange reason went totally berserk and started hitting Mr Kelly on the head and body with a copy of the book, and newspapers.' The director went to an unscheduled commercial break.

Florence Horsman-Hogan, by the way, is a leading force in L.O.V.E. (Let Our Voices Emerge), an organisation which was set up in 2004 to 'promote a more positive image of religious orders in their orphanages and industrial schools.'

L.O.V.E. has campaigned against the O'Beirne book since its publication, warning that Ms O'Beirne was not a well woman, and arguing that Mainstream publishing, in taking on her story, and Michael Sheridan, the co-author, were taking advantage of a very vulnerable person.'

You don't have to read much about the O'Beirne saga, and about organisations such as L.O.V.E., to realise that these are brutally controversial areas of concern, and that the rows and disputes which they generate can inflict serious damage on the participants. You enter these waters at your peril. Here's just a taste. And another. And more. And on, and on, and on....

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ghost stories

The clocks have gone back, the nights are closing in, and this is no doubt the time of year when M.R. James used to begin to think rather seriously about the ghost story which he would read to his friends on Christmas Eve.

Perhaps the most successful of modern ghost-story writers is Susan Hill, whose new book The Man in the Picture was enthusiastically reviewed by Madame Arcati just a short while ago. Madame also announced that the book has been reprinted.

You may also remember that, a few months ago, the Times announced a competition for a short ghost story. Short being the operative word: 2000 words only, which is a bit difficult, in my view. For them as wanted to enter, Susan Hill provided a few tips.

The winner of this competition was Robert Fenner, with The Witch's Promise, and you can read it online. I did have ideas about entering the competition myself, but for a variety of reasons never got around to it.

So -- all of the above being the case, I thought I would give you a ghost story that I prepared earlier. It's called Gunner Balfour Treated Fairly, and you can read it below. It's one of the stories included in my 2003 collection, King Albert's Words of Advice.


Not many old ladies would ask their granddaughter to have a one-night stand with a soldier – especially if the two young people have not even been properly introduced. But that is what happened to me, in the summer of my twentieth year.

It was June, and I was at the end of my second year at Oxford. I received this slightly mysterious letter from my grandmother – my mother’s mother – asking me to phone her urgently. When I did, she invited me to go and see her. Well, more than invited – she pretty well demanded that I go and stay with her for a couple of nights. She said that she needed my help, urgently, but wouldn’t elaborate on what; just said that it was a family matter, and something of the utmost importance.

I dearly love my Granny, and I would go to quite a lot of trouble to help her, and as it happened I had finished all my exams so I was able to agree; though I must say I was a bit puzzled. ‘Bring that blue dress of yours – the one with buttons up the front,’ Granny had said. Which all added to the mystery.

My grandmother lives in a small village in Wiltshire, on the edge of Salisbury Plain. The Plain, as you probably know, is a big centre of military activity, and most of Granny’s neighbours are retired colonels or brigadiers. The tank regiments use the area for various war games, and the infantry practise street fighting in some of the deserted villages. These villages were not deserted willingly: they were taken over by the army during the second world war, and have never been returned to civilian use.

Granny, needless to say, is heavily involved in church affairs and village activities generally. She is president of the flower club, a member of the women’s bowls team (despite being over eighty), and is secretary of the women’s institute (or some such body – I forget the details).

I arrived soon after lunch on a beautifully warm June day: a taxi from the nearest railway station delivered to me Granny’s door.

We spent the afternoon resting and chatting, drinking tea, and then calling on various neighbours. We distributed excess vegetables from Granny’s garden. ‘Helping the old folk,’ Granny called it, oblivious of the fact that she herself was older than many of those we visited.

Nothing whatever was said about ‘the matter of the utmost importance’, and I knew better than to press the point. Like many old people who live alone, Granny talked a great deal whenever she had company, and I knew that she would tell me what was troubling her when she was good and ready.

After a light evening meal we chatted some more, and watched a television programme that Granny was particularly anxious to see.

Then she said: ‘I think we’ll just go for a little walk. Not very far. Just around the churchyard.’

Granny lives in a detached house, set in a comfortable garden, directly opposite the church – which is fourteenth century – so a walk round the churchyard was not going to tax either of us.

The sun had now set, and the light was fading, but the sky was still perfectly clear. The air was calm and sultry.

As we came out of Granny’s drive, and prepared to cross the road, I was struck by the almost complete absence of signs of life. Cars are few and far between in the village nowadays, because a new road has taken all the traffic away; and on that particular evening there weren’t even any dog-walkers about.

Granny took us on a small diversion, to look at the house of an absent neighbour and make sure that it was in good order, and then she led the way through the lychgate and into the churchyard.

I should explain that the churchyard in Granny’s village is one of a number in the area which contain both civilian and military graves. The civilian ones cover several centuries, as usual, and come in all shapes and sizes. The military graves all date from 1919, soon after the end of the first world war; almost without exception they mark the final resting place of soldiers from New Zealand, and they are absolutely standard in design. They are about three feet high, and arranged in lines, like a platoon on parade: the white headstones carry little more than the name, rank, and date of death.

I have been familiar with these graves since I was a little girl, and as I walked through the churchyard with Granny I paid them little attention. I was just listening to her telling me how difficult it was to find anyone who would cut the grass regularly.

It did occur to me that Granny was talking even more than usual, and perhaps a little louder than usual, but I made nothing of that: just an old lady’s eccentricity. If I noticed anything, it was that the soldiers’ headstones seemed to glow in the twilight, as if they were softly illumined from within.

We went into the churchyard at the west end, walked around the north side of the church, where most of the soldiers are buried, and then began to approach the east end, where there is a huge old yew tree. This yew is older, some say, than the church; so old that its trunk has divided into two sections, leaving a gap large enough to walk through.

As we approached the east end of the church, I began to hear this loud humming noise. At first I thought it might be a swarm of bees, or something similar, and I looked round in some alarm. But it was a bit too late in the evening for bees, I thought, and anyway I couldn’t see any. The loud humming continued. It sounded almost as if it was a human being, making a sort of Mmmmm! sound, in warm appreciation of something – as if someone had tasted something really juicy.

I said nothing to Granny, and we walked slowly on, with Granny still prattling away about the churchyard management committee and the curious intractability of its members – which meant that they didn’t always agree with her.

And then Granny seemed to notice my puzzlement. She stopped and turned to look at me. ‘What’s the matter, dear?’

‘Well... nothing,’ I said. ‘But can you hear that humming noise?’

Granny stood and listened. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t. Not any more. But I used to hear it when I was younger.’

‘What is it?’

Granny went into her evasive mode. ‘Oh, nothing to be alarmed about,’ she said vaguely. And began to walk on again. But still very slowly.

After a moment I followed her.

By now it was almost dark, but we were just able to see where we were going. And it was at that point that I heard a man’s voice. Quite distinctly.

‘It’s not fair!’ said the voice. The man spoke sharply, with a good deal of emphasis and some bitterness. ‘It’s not fair, I say! Do you hear me? It’s not fair.’

As you will understand, I looked around to see where this voice was coming from. The speaker was obviously some distance away, rather than right behind me, but at first I could see no one.

So I carried on walking, following Granny, who was doddering a bit, looking down to make quite certain where she was putting her feet.

I caught up with Granny as she prepared to walk along the south side of the church, completing our circular tour and heading back towards the churchyard gate. I put my hand on Granny’s arm to stop her progress.

’Did you hear someone speak?’ I asked her.

‘No, dear, I didn’t. Did you?


‘What did they say?’ The tone was innocent – so innocent that even then I guessed that Granny knew more than she was admitting.

I told her. Speaking quite distinctly myself, I said: ‘It was a man. and he said, “It’s not fair”.’

‘Ah,’ said Granny, with a slightly guilty tone to her voice. ‘In that case it was Gunner Balfour. Is he, perhaps, under the yew tree?’

I turned to look back at the ancient yew, and sure enough, I could now see the dark figure of a man, almost hidden under the lower branches.

And again I heard him speak. It was almost a shout, with a note of desperation: ‘It’s not fair! Not fair at all! I should have had my turn. And I never did. And that’s not right. I won’t rest till I do. Do you hear me? Won’t rest until I do.’

The voice was no so loud and aggressive that I began to feel a little alarmed. ‘I think we should go,’ I said firmly, and took Granny’s arm to hurry her along.

‘Oh you mustn’t be frightened of Gunner Balfour,’ said Granny. ‘He sounds a bit fierce but I assure you he’s harmless.’

I looked back at the figure under the tree, and was relieved to see that the man had not moved. And now that I looked more closely, I could see that he was wearing army uniform; his belt buckle sent a brief flash of reflection from the distant street light, as did his boots.

‘Harmless he may be,’ I said, ‘but it’s very late, and I think we should go home.’

Once we arrived back at the house, I locked the front door after us, and went round making sure that all doors and windows were fully secure. Granny, meanwhile, made some cocoa.

When she handed me my cup I said, ‘Now then, Granny, I think it’s about time you told me what that business in the churchyard was all about. Are you going to tell me who Gunner Balfour is, and what he means by hanging around out there?’

Granny took refuge, once again, in a sort of geriatric fatigue. ‘Oh not just now, dear. I don’t think now’s the right time. I’ll tell you tomorrow, dear. In what is sometimes called the cold light of day.’


The following morning we took our time about getting up. Then we had a neighbour in for coffee; and finally, after the neighbour had departed, I told Granny once again that I wanted hear about Gunner Balfour.

‘Oh,’ she said, as if faintly surprised. ‘I thought you might have forgotten.’

This was a transparent lie. She thought no such thing.

‘How could I forget?’ I said. ‘I want to know what on earth this man was doing, lurking about in the graveyard late at night, and scaring people by shouting at them. Is he a regular soldier?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘And what does his commanding officer think of him doing that sort of thing?’

Granny didn’t answer. What I got was a thoughtful question instead: ‘Tell me – how did he look to you?’

‘What do you mean, how did he look? You saw him, didn’t you?’

Granny shook her head. ‘No, dear. I can’t see him any longer. Or hear him either. Though I did once, of course. When I was younger.’

‘Granny, you’re not going blind, are you?’ I was quite upset and concerned.

‘No, no, dear. I’m not blind. Neither am I deaf. Not really.’

‘Well what then?’

I think it was at that point that I first began to understand; and, despite the warmth of the day, I shivered.

‘My dear,’ said Granny, ‘you’ve gone quite pale. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.... I tell you what, it might make better sense if we go across the road again. And Gunner Balfour won’t be there at this time of day, that much is quite certain.’

So that is what we did.

Granny led the way, and we wandered through the ancient graves until we were among the regular rows of New Zealand soldiers. And there, of course, we found the grave of Gunner Albert Balfour. Aged seventeen.

We stood and looked at the grave together.

‘He lied about his age, of course,’ said Granny. ‘They were farming people, his family. Good church-going folk, from somewhere near Christchurch. This boy was their only son, and they needed him on the farm really, but he thought he ought to volunteer for the army, and so they all conspired to let him. As soon as he left school he signed the recruitment papers, pretending he was older than he really was. And I expect the army knew what he was doing, but they weren’t too fussy about details in those days.’

‘And did he die in action?’

‘Oh no! None of these men died in action. What happened was, at the end of the war, in November 1918, the troops gradually began to drift back to England from France. Of course in an ideal world the troops from overseas – Canada, Australia, and so forth – they ought to have been sent home immediately. But there simply weren’t the ships available to move them. So lots of the troops were left hanging about in England, with nothing much to do, for months on end.’

I was astonished. ‘I bet that was popular.’

‘Well, exactly. The officers used to take them on endless route marches across Salisbury Plain, that sort of thing. I believe some of the Canadian troops actually mutinied, in protest against the delays, and the futility of wasting time. But that didn’t happen here. What did happen, of course, was influenza.’


‘Oh yes. There were epidemics of influenza all over Europe in 1918 and ’19, and it wasn’t just your usual bad-cold-and-a-headache type of flu. This was a killer. And it did kill them. Even fit young men. Killed them by the score, as you can see.’ She looked around, at the rows of pale creamy headstones.

Suddenly – and this was most unlike my grandmother – her face seemed to crumple and she grew ten years older, right in front of my eyes. She began to weep.

‘I met his parents,’ she said, in between great gulping sobs. ‘They came over after the second war, because they knew they were going to die soon, and they wanted to see his grave. And it’s all my fault, you see! That’s the worst part. It’s all my fault!’


I took Granny home, sat her down, and gave her a nice strong cup of tea. It was what she would have done for anyone else in a similar state of distress. And when she had regained control of herself I asked her to explain what she had meant about it being all her fault.

Granny sighed deeply and looked down at the damp handkerchief in her hands. ‘Well, you see, it’s my fault that Gunner Balfour cannot rest in peace.’

‘Start at the beginning,’ I said firmly. ‘And go on to the end, and then stop.’

For once in her life Granny did as she was told.

‘Well, you see, at the end of the first war, all those New Zealanders died in England, as you well know. They survived all the shooting and killing, and then they died of a disease which most of us recover from in a week or two. Which is a dreadful irony in itself. And there they all lie, in a Wiltshire graveyard, many thousands of miles from their homes and their loved ones.

‘I don’t suppose the dead men were very happy about their situation, but they put up with it, as soldiers do. But then after the second world war, something happened. Something happened to upset them. Well, it upset Gunner Balfour, anyway.’

I waited, but nothing came. So I prodded. ‘What, exactly, happened?’

‘Well...’ There was much hesitation, and some embarrassment; a little guilt. ‘Well, you see, at the end of the second war there was a great deal of joy, as you can imagine, and a good deal of celebration, both formal and informal. And I think what happened was, a young soldier and his girlfriend went into the churchyard one night and celebrated in the way that young people do.’

Another pause.

‘You mean they made love?’

‘Yes. Under the yew tree. Quite near to Gunner Balfour’s grave. Too near, for his liking.’

‘It can’t have been very comfortable for the couple concerned.’

‘Oh, it wasn’t too bad,’ said Granny immediately. ‘It’s all right on a nice warm summer’s evening.’ She gave me a reproving look. ‘And besides, young people then weren’t as free as you are now, you know. They couldn’t just say to the family, Excuse us, we’re off upstairs for a quickie. They had to be more discreet. Take walks in the evening. That sort of thing.’

So, the rabbit was very definitely out of the hat. I now knew that my grandmother was rather more familiar with the couple in question than had appeared at first sight.

‘I see,’ I said, totally straight-faced. ‘But just assuming you’re right about the couple under the yew tree, why should it be Gunner Balfour who took offence, rather than any of the others?’

To Granny it was perfectly obvious. ‘Oh, because he’d never done it, you see. That’s why. He’d never made love to a woman himself. He says so, doesn’t he? “It’s not fair,” he says. “I should have had my turn.” That sort of thing. You’ve heard him, haven’t you?’

I had to admit I had.

‘It was after the second war, and after that bit of, er, informal celebration, that people began to hear him for the first time. Well, I say people. It’s only women, of course. Women of child-bearing age, so to speak. Children can’t hear him, or see him, and the oldies can’t either.... He’s not so bad in the winter – he lies quiet for most of the time. But in the summer, in the long hot evenings, he is troubled by desire.’

And he is not alone in that, I thought, but I said nothing.

Granny began to cry again. ‘And the worst thing is, I could have put a stop to it then. And I didn’t.’

‘How do you mean, you could have put a stop to it?’

‘Well, I could have gone with him, couldn’t I? I could have given him what he wanted. I could have given him the experience of having a woman.’ Her hands twisted together as she sought to express her guilt and shame. ‘He only wants to do it the once, you see. I’m sure of that. It’s just that he was so young, and he died so far from home, without ever having had a girl of his own. And that’s what he means when he says it’s so unfair! And he’s right! It is. Horribly, horribly unfair.’

I looked out of the window. Yes, it was still a normal June afternoon, in a perfectly normal English village, with a couple of perfectly normal English women, having a chat about ghosts in the churchyard.

‘So the figure that I saw and heard last night, he was a ghost, was he?’

Granny wiped her eyes and became very serious. ‘I prefer to think of him as a presence,’ she said. ‘People get frightened and come over all silly when you speak of ghosts. But technically Gunner Balfour is a ghost, of course. A ghost, you see, is the spirit of a dead person who for some reason remains earthbound. Such a spirit may generate an illusion, that is to say something which is actually unreal, but which looks and sounds convincingly real. That is why you can see him and hear him.’

‘I see,’ I said. ‘Well, I sort of see. But if he is a ghost then surely he ought to be exorcised.’

Granny was dismissive. ‘Oh, we’ve tried that. Last Vicar but one.’


‘Well, the Vicar went into the churchyard late at night, with his bell book and candle, or whatever, and he hadn’t got more than three words out when Gunner Balfour punched him full in the face and knocked him flat. The Vicar came out of that churchyard a sight faster than he went in, I can tell you. “I don’t know what that ghost wants, Mrs Bannister,” he said to me afterwards, “but one thing he doesn’t want is to be exorcised.” So that was the end of that.’

I tried another track. “Well why not leave him alone then? Just let him be. Is he very troublesome?’

“No, not... particularly. It’s only young girls who can hear him clearly, and they tend to keep well away. Or they used to. Modern girls are bolder – I’ve heard them shout back at him. Telling him what he can do with himself, that sort of thing. Well that’s not kind, and it’s not at all helpful.’

‘Time has not mellowed him then.’

‘Oh no.’ She quoted: ‘For they shall not grow old as we that are left grow old.’

That thought struck home a bit, and I paused.

Then I said: ‘What does the current Vicar think?’

‘He raised it at the last churchyard committee meeting. Tactfully. And I said that I had an idea for dealing with the matter. So I was appointed. Mrs Jenkin, the secretary, minuted that Mrs Bannister was appointed as a subcommittee of one to deal with the churchyard ghost. She made a bit of a joke of it. But it’s not a joke at all. It’s not a bit funny. It’s a serious matter, and it has to be dealt with properly. And I’m afraid it’s a family matter – because as I explained, I’m the one who started it all off.’

There was another pause, while I digested what Granny had told me. ‘Well, if you’ve been deputed to deal with it, what are you going to do?’

‘Well for a start, I sent for you.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘So it’s a plot, is it?’

Granny looked just a little bit sheepish. ‘I’m afraid so. You see, I’m a wicked, scheming old woman.’


I called a halt at that point. Subconsciously I had decided that I didn’t want to hear any more, at least for the time being.

We went out to lunch at one of the two village pubs. Then we came home, and after Granny had had a nap and a cup of tea, I asked her what she thought I could do to help.

‘Ah well, you see,’ she began, and I knew at once that she was going to take a roundabout route. ‘You’ve heard the noise, haven’t you – that low, rumbling, murmuring sound.’

‘Yes,’ I said – cautiously.

‘Well that means Gunner Balfour likes you. And you’ve seen him under the yew tree.’


‘And you’ve heard what he said. About it not being fair.’


‘Well then....’

I genuinely didn’t understand, even then. And I must have looked blank, because Granny felt obliged to be more specific.

‘You’re not engaged, are you?’ she asked.


‘Or spoken for in any way?’


‘Good. I was pretty sure you weren’t. It wouldn’t do otherwise.’

‘Granny, what wouldn’t do?’

‘Well, you see, you are exactly the sort of person he needs. Gunner Balfour needs a young, beautiful woman, preferably someone who is not attached to anyone else, and who has enough experience to help him. Because he hasn’t had any experience.’

I was, I must admit, incredulous. ‘You mean, you think I should go into the churchyard and let Gunner Balfour make love to me?’

‘Oh yes, dear. That’s the whole point.’

I must have looked stunned, and I was certainly speechless, so Granny continued.

‘It’s not much to ask, is it? Poor Gunner Balfour was robbed and cheated of fifty years of life. He was a perfectly healthy and decent young man, laid low by a terrible virus. And all he asks in return for his sacrifice is a little affection. That’s all. He doesn’t want a lifetime’s devotion, or a drawn-out love affair – he just wants a few moments of kindness and generosity and sympathy. A little recognition of the sacrifice he made. Now that’s not unreasonable, is it? And I’m sure you can put it all right for him if you choose. I mean you have spent two years at Oxford – so you’re not without experience are you?’

At last she stopped for breath, and I almost laughed. But I was forced to admit that she was right. About that last bit. ‘No, Granny,’ I said solemnly. ‘I am not without experience.’

‘Oh good. So you’ll do it then?’

I sighed deeply. ‘What precisely do I have to do?’

‘Well, you have to go into the churchyard at midnight tonight.’

‘Has it got to be tonight?’

‘Oh yes. It’s midsummer’s Eve.’

Well, there was no arguing with that. ‘And it’s got to be midnight, has it?’

‘Oh yes. That seems the appropriate time to me.’

‘Hmm,’ I said. ‘I think I’m going to need a minute or two to think about this.’ But of course we both knew that she had me.

‘Jolly good,’ Granny said chirpily. ‘And by the way, whatever happens, I don’t think we should tell your mother.’


After tea we went for a walk and watched part of a bowls match. Then we had non-alcoholic drinks in the pub and wandered home at about ten.

Granny disappeared into the kitchen. A few minutes later she emerged with a bowl of cereal, made with hot milk. I was mildly astonished, because we didn’t normally have any supper.

‘What’s this?’

‘Well, dear, I look at it this way. If I was going to go out into the churchyard, at midnight on midsummer’s eve, to meet Gunner Balfour under the yew tree, I think I would want to get a couple of weetabix inside me first.’

I was beyond protest by that time. I ate it all up, like a good girl.

‘I think you should wear that blue dress,’ said Granny. ‘The one with buttons all down the front. Nice and easy to get out of. And sandals.’

‘And nothing else,’ I added sarcastically, but Granny thought I was being vulgar and refused to reply.

‘I shan’t wait up,’ she said, ‘any more than I would if you were going to a disco.’

And when I had finished the weetabix she took the bowl from me and pottered off to bed.

After about half an hour I changed into the suggested outfit, feeling distinctly foolish and self-conscious, and then I waited, alone, in silence, until the church clock struck twelve. Perhaps I dozed, I don’t know, but the time seemed to pass quite quickly.

I turned off all the lights in the house and then went out, quietly, through the front door. There I paused for a few moments, letting my eyes become used to the gloom.

It was fairly dark, because there was no moon, and there was scarcely a sound to be heard. Just once, in the far distance, I heard the engine of a car. Then silence again.

My feet crunched on the gravel as I went down the short drive, and when I crossed the road I could see no sign of a light in any of the houses.

As soon as I reached the gate to the churchyard I heard the hum again – that hum of desire, as I now realised. It was much louder now than the first time, and for a moment I hesitated.

As if sensing my uncertainty, the hum paused, and then, when I did not run, it began again, more intense than ever. Too late to turn back now, I thought.

I went in through the gate, and I saw Gunner Balfour at once. He was waiting for me under the yew tree. As on the previous night, an indirect beam of street light, far away, flickered briefly on his belt and his boots.

As I approached the low boughs of the ancient yew, Gunner Balfour came forward to greet me, and I could see at once that he was far younger than I had imagined. He was nothing more than a tall, lanky boy. Shy, and little reserved. His eyes shone, and his belt buckle shone, and his boots shone like black gold. He had polished them just for me.

I led him, rather than he me, until we were hidden deep under the yew. And when we were both naked and ready I reached out my hand and took hold of his manhood. It seemed quite unusually hot and firm – but then he had been kept waiting for a very long time.

After it was all over, his hand stroked my face. And then he quietly faded away.

Nothing remained of him except his neatly folded uniform, and his belt, and his boots. I could see them clearly defined in the half light of midnight, and when I reached out and touched them they were as real as my own hand. But I left them there on the ground. I thought he might need them again.

The following morning I was awake at dawn. And when I had gathered my senses I remembered about the uniform.

I thought it might somehow alarm people – cause gossip and talk – if a soldier’s uniform and his boots were to be found under the yew tree. It might generate enough speculation about the ghost to get into the local press; and then the nationals would pick it up, and after that the village would have no peace. So I pulled on a few clothes – not the blue dress – and hurried across the road.

I knew exactly where the uniform, and the belt, and the boots, had been left. And I went straight to the spot.

But of course... there was nothing there.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

No Assholes here

Lynne Scanlon tells me that Bob Sutton's book, The No Asshole Rule, has won the Quill Award for best business book. This was achieved in the face of some pretty stiff opposition, Seth Godin's latest being one of them.

If you're worried about your own asshole status, take the test in the top right-hand corner of Sutton's site, the first one listed under ARSE tools. I'd like to tell you how I got on, but it's too embarrassing.

Interested in how your book is doing on Amazon? Or how your enemy's book is doing? (Badly, one hopes; heh heh heh.) Then visit RankTracer and learn how to gloat.

The Times is offering the chance to receive love letters by email. Or you could buy the book. Link from Edmond Clay.

Ansible reports that Robert Ronson, author of a children's sf novel called Olympic Mind Games -- set at the 2012 London Olympics -- was sternly told by the Olympics 2012 committee that he wasn't allowed to use the O-word, nor such protected terms as 'London 2012' or even just '2012'. What's more, they complained, 'there is no such thing as Olympic mind games'. Ronson ignored this bluster and seems to have got away with it.

Good for him. This kind of thing is getting too ridiculous to tolerate. The UK Writers' Guild takes a dim view, and even some of m'learned friends aren't too amused.

Alex Scarrow is worried about the future....

Gee whiz. The Bookride blog reports that Bill Clinton visited Shakespeare & Co.

Do you live in the UK? Do you write stuff? If so, it will be worth your while to join the Authors Licensing & Collecting Society. Last year they paid out over £16.74 million, split between (or is it among? Mr Robinson would know) 45,000 writers. They even paid me some, though I'm not at all sure why.

Litlist is a web site which attempts to provide accurate info about various markets for literary writers. Looks useful, in its field.

The Gents, as you may have noticed, are not always frequented by gentlemen in need of a pee. Some chaps are more concerned about other things. And there's a book about it, recently republished by the Friday Project.

HarperCollins have an eye on as yet unpublished writers, believe it or not. If you're interested, keep your own eye on this web site.

The press release says that 'HarperCollins UK is to launch a brand new proprietary community site that will discover and nurture the freshest new writing talent online. Authonomy™ is a groundbreaking initiative that enables unpublished writers to build lasting relationships with readers and publishing professionals.' Kick-off early 2008.

Pseudonymous Bosch has written a book. But, unusually, he is keeping it a secret. You need to be awfully clever to keep up with this stuff; which rules me out.

A book about a mentally ill brother is not going to appeal to everyone, of course. But... if you're in a similar situation, this one may help.

The libel/Mahfouz uproar continues. As indeed it should. (Even some British newspapers have dared to mention it now.)

And for comment on the latest UK nonsense about being free to say what you think, see this morning's Times. Things have come to a pretty pass when an old-fashioned Marxist is more tolerant than the leader of the Conservatives.

Tim O'Reilly, of O'Reilly Publishing, has long been one of the smartest thinkers on the web. It was he, you may remember, who pointed out that writer's chief problem is not piracy but obscurity.

Now Mr O'Reilly further explores the issue of free material on the web. And what is more, he is sufficiently well connected to have had dinner recently with Rupert Murdoch. From which we learn that Mr Murdoch is a very smart man. But we knew that already. You may or may not like him, but smart you can hardly deny.

Link from Galleycat, where Ron Hogan discusses these issues.

On similar issues, Barry Eisler gets space on M.J. Rose's blog to talk about how Web 2.0 changes the media, including, of course, the book biz. Are there any publishers out there who are worried, do you think? Or are they all saying Nah... Couldn't happen here.

If you're interested in kiss-and-tell memoirs, the Times recently ran a piece about one of the earliest such memoirist: Harriette Wilson. It was she of whom the Duke of Wellington famously said, 'Publish and be damned.' She was damned, sadly.

Further to last week's mention of Foyles, you may like to read an interview with the boss man, Christopher Foyle. It was Christopher who, shortly after taking over from his aunt, Christina, put an end to a massive fraud which must have been one of the book-trade's worst-kept secrets.

It seems that, at one time, any small-time crook who was short of a few bob knew where to go to get some drinking money. And the Foyles accountancy system (three old ladies with hand-written ledgers) was quite unable to detect anything amiss.

Profile Books is one of the UK's most successful small publishers. A quick glance at the catalogue reveals some real gems. There's Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader and Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, for a start.

We also have a book called Bertha Venation, which is about funny names of real people. I wonder if it gets as vulgar as the Times did in the eighteenth century, on the same subject. The list of (genuine) surnames which the Times of 1797 considered amusing included Holdwater, Pricke, Poopy, Piddle, Piss, Honeybum, Quicklove, Shittel, and Teate. And more. Easily amused in those days, weren't they?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Anne Weale

I am sorry to hear that Anne Weale has died. The news came from Jenny Haddon, recently retired Chairman of the UK Romantic Novelists' Association.

Anne Weale was one of the founding members of the RNA. She began her career as a newspaper reporter, but by 1955 was already writing fiction. She went on writing a book a year, sometimes two, until quite recently. The total, I think, was 79. Fantasticfiction has, as usual, a complete list.

Anne was one of the first writers to recognise the power of the internet, and from 1998 to 2004 she wrote a web-site review column, Bookworm on the Net, for the Bookseller. She then transferred to blogging, under the same title.

The last post on Bookworm on the Net appeared on 13 September, when Anne was having computer problems. In it she says: 'It's an interesting experience to be forced offline for a while.' What a shame that the change has proved to be permanent.

Anne Weale did me a great kindness in providing a positive quote for the cover of my most recent novel. As the RNA says, she will be missed.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Catching up?

Crumbs. The free book offer is a bit of a success, to put it mildly, so I will probably have to take the rest of the week off to pack stuff up. If you've asked for something, I should be able to oblige, but stocks may run out, in which case I will let you know. Allow at least a couple of weeks for delivery. Many thanks for your interest.

Speaking of books wot I wrote, Gladys Hobson has reviewed a couple of them on her Wrinkly Writers blog: Passionate Affairs and Beautiful Lady. Gladys, if you haven't discovered her, is one hell of a writer. Not many people write about a granny in search of an orgasm, but Gladys has done it beautifully.

I am beginning to figure out that I may never catch up from the two-week period when my computer was out of action. However, in a pathetic attempt to give at least some publicity to matters which quite often deserve more detailed consideration, here are a few links and comments:

Levi Asher tries to figure out the book business. (Thanks to Dave Lull for the link.) This is an unusual and very interesting article.

Fifteen top thriller writers got together to write The Chopin Manuscript, and the result is available in audio form.

YoungMinds is a worthy cause and it makes an annual book award.

The American Scholar offers an article about Brooklyn-based big sellers. This is not an essay that I recommend, but it seems entirely typical of what academe offers, should you want to know what that is. Link from Clare Toohey, who didn't like it much either.

Stable-door department, example no. 94: In the US, evangelical leaders have called for a ban on Harry Potter books and films. Apparently, the news that Dumbledore was gay was just too much to bear. (Link from

Lots and lots of requests for reviews, of course. With the best will in the world, I couldn't possibly agree to read them all, but I normally mention them if they have an online link:

Michael Elking: Executing Mozart. A freshman arrives from England and sets the great university afire with his bipolar genius and random sexuality. I say. Bit much, surely?

Christopher Bowden: The Blue Book. Bookshop browser finds a mysterious note in the pages of a book.

Mike Dailey: Alarm. This one offers two CDs with the book; the CDs feature words from the novel performed with the author's band, O'Grady.

Joanne Harris: Runemarks. Seven o’clock on a Monday morning, five hundred years after the end of the world, and goblins have been at the cellar again. For young readers (of all ages?). Sounds good to me.

William Coles: The Well-Tempered Clavier. A love affair at Eton, which is attracting quite a lot of attention. Compare, if you will, my own Passionate Affairs (see end of this post).

Erik Ringmar: A Blogger's Manifesto. Ringmar is an academic who has been on the sharp end of a freedom-of-speech dispute.

The Radio Times tells us that we are about to have a TV version of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View. Yet it only seems like yesterday that we had the Merchant Ivory film version.

This new TV adaptation will be written by Andrew Davies, which might lead one to expect a certain, shall we say, thumbprint? But no. Producer Eileen Quinn says that 'there are no lesbians and no full-frontal nudity.'

Well, all I can say is that that is most disappointing.

This blog does not do poetry, for a variety of reasons, chiefly concerned with lack of sensitivity and patience, but the OUP blog does dabble in same.

Taylor Mac is back in the UK: Croydon, Liverpool, Lancaster.

Columbia University Press has linked up with VitalSource in an attempt to help scholars and students to use electronic technology to make faster and more efficient literature searches. A good idea in principle, certainly.

Edmond Clay thinks that the US has got rich writers, but the UK's writers are richer. Which is interesting.

The Economist reports that, in Chile, the poorer citizens will be given a literario, or free box of books. On the whole I think they would probably prefer a food parcel, but somebody no doubt means well. Thanks to Jon, the Seoul Man in Tokyo, for the link.

Paola, wife to Seoul Man in Tokyo, sends me a copy of an email exchange that she had with Foyles. Expat Brits with a keen sense of loyalty sometimes prefer to order books from the likes of Foyles rather than patronise the giant Amazon et cetera. However, it is hard going.

Paola sent Foyles a substantial list of suggested improvements to their web site, and received a courteous and prompt reply, with some detailed comments on the comments. However, the reply does make slightly depressing reading.

In most of the responses, Foyles pleads that it can't afford to compete with the big boys. And on the question of why Foyles does not encourage bloggers and others to set up links to Foyles, rather than Amazon, the word is this:
Many of the links to Amazon do come from small self-published and independent works, and as a small business we often do not have the capacity to process orders for such titles. Many small publishers or self-published authors require payment for multiple copies of books or payment by cheque before they release orders. Amazon can afford to keep reserves of these small titles in their large warehouse if ordering multiples, whereas we do not have this capacity. These are authors who need us, rather than vice versa, and thus offer these links free.
Well, the lady tried.

Sarah Schulman, in Slate, doesn't believe in a merit-based publishing environment. She points out some differences between UK and US approaches to sexual matters. Indeed, my own Passionate Affairs was rejected by one US editor because of its 'difficult' subject matter, whereas in England not a hair has turned. So far, anyway. Perhaps that's just because no one's ever read it.