There in ’59

It isn’t just at New Year that I’m reflective, but something about the season encourages it. I did three ultra-reflective things this week. Two of them were good, the other one I’m not so sure about.

The first was a walk. It wasn’t a very long walk, according to the magic Garmin solar watch my wonderful partner gave me for my birthday, but despite the cold wind it was a good one, and one I do most years. I met a man called Joe Shea three times in my life. He stayed at my house for ten days, twice, over ten year ago now, when he came to England for a memorial service to his squadron. He was American, from the absolute middle of Nowhere, Ohio and the first time he came to Leiston airfield was January 20th, 1945. He was eighteen. He flew P51 Mustangs back then, flying escort to the B17s and B24s flying out of Debach, Parham where I live now and any other airfield in the 8th US Army Airforce. His unit lost 82 men killed from that airfield; nothing much compared to the more than ten times that number who took off from Parham and never walked the ground again. The only difference was that Joe’s group flew single-seaters; here at Parham there were ten men in a B17 crew.

Joe’s stories weren’t much like the movies. For one thing, his group lost more airplanes to the weather than the Luftwaffe ever managed to put down. He told me about two separate occasions where flying out and coming back to Leiston on the coast here, there would be clear air with fantastic visibility up to about 50 feet in winter, then a layer of cloud, then clear bright sunlight above that, all the way to the stratosphere. And how once flying out and another time coming back, he was in a group of three airplanes going into the cloud and one of only two that came out. Those two are somewhere in the North Sea, just four miles away, not even two minutes after take-off, not even two minutes short of home.

It was foggy all the time back then, Joe told me. But it wasn’t. It’s foggy here about three days a year. It wasn’t fog. It was coal fires and temperature inversion, and maybe, for those three days, fog as well. It didn’t make any difference, but the films all leave out the fact that the people you’re protecting are actually a big part of getting you killed. If that didn’t do it then 18 year-olds charging around the sky at 450 mph, or making tight turns and finding their wings literally fell off, that would. Joe told me about seeing that. He told me about seeing bomber crews five miles up above the earth suddenly without an airplane that had disintegrated around them and there being nothing you could do except watch.

We had a famous airplane explode here, over the marshes near Southwold. President Kennedy’s older brother was flying it. It was packed full of explosives to destroy U-boat pens and the idea was that after take-off the pilot and co-pilot would arm the remote control system, parachute out and another aircraft would literally fly what was now a closely guided missile onto its target. It was a B24 Liberator, the same planes that flew out of Debach and when Kennedy switched the controls to Remote it blew the atoms of him and the co-pilot over about 20 square miles. Joe thought that was unremarkable when we visited a tiny part of the crash site.

He told me what he’d seen, over and again. Whether that happened because they took a direct hit from anti-aicraft fire flying straight on a steady heading, or whether as he seemed to imply, it was something about the airplane that made that happen didn’t matter. The result was the same. And all he could do was watch.

“Those things used to blow up as soon as they opened the bomb doors.”

So when I can get the time and the space on my own, at Christmas I go to the memorial on the old airbase and read out the names there. It’s always a surprise how many of the names are German. It sort of seems the least I can do. These days I have to add Joe’s name to the list. I do that last.

The other thing I did is something I do much more often, a regular-ish walk around Parham Wood, out of the farm gate, up to Silverlace Green, along the lane where usually in the afternoon there’s a little herd of deer, as there was today. Not the fat scuttling muntjacs that come into the yard and eat the plants, but proper roe deer, their heads about level with your shoulder, dark on top and almost silver underneath, their own camouflage on this old airfield. They don’t want to be near people and these were a good three hundred yards away, which suited us both.

I walked up the hill through a little hamlet so small it doesn’t even have a name, then took a shortcut on a footpath across a field, slipping on the stile. For some of the years I’ve been here the farmer has ploughed over the footpath through here; every year whoever else walks this field makes sure we trample down whatever gets planted where it shouldn’t be. This year the farmer’s done the sensible thing and run a tractor along the route of the footpath, showing everyone where it is and leaving a brown muddy stripe through the crop. That takes you across a little lane, then across another field, across the little bridge, skirting another field until you get to a fingerpost pointing down the hill you’ve been climbing, flanking Parham Wood.

I’ve got a detailed old map of this area, made in 1959 when the difficult path along the stream cutting diagonally across this route was officially described as a road. Someone here much older told me it was, and they used to take their children along it in a pushchair, but I can’t see how. Things change though. Also on that map there was a house at the corner of the wood.

It was there in ’59.

On the left of the picture is Parham Wood, where once there was a Home Guard Auxiliary post, overlooking the railway that used to run from Framlingham to Snape. That’s gone, too. The odd thing about this disappeared house though, is where it is. There’s no road to it, just a track and not a big one at that. There are no telegraph poles, so no telephone and around here that probably also meant no electricity either. No mains drainage. And if it was like a lot of Suffolk farm buildings, no foundations either, which is probably why there isn’t a single brick standing now. The husband of the woman with the pushchair told me something odd though. He lived here all of his life. His family and then he himself owned a lot of the land around here, as well as this farm. He remembered when you couldn’t cross the airfield to get to Great Glemham after the war, because it was still fenced off and the road that was closed by the RAF in 1939 was still closed, over a decade after that. But he didn’t remember that house, at all. He was puzzled to see it on the map I have. Odd. It’s not even a mile away, well within small boy range.

Unsettling and comforting, dream and reality, fact and fiction. 

The other thing wasn’t important. I re-read Not Your Heart Away, the book, as Ernie Wise used to say, what I wrote. When I was at school I found a copy of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, in a pile in the Music Room. I don’t know why it was there; it wasn’t on the syllabus for O or A Levels and it wasn’t set to music (although it did make it as a (OMG, OMG, OMG..) Julie Christie film and a nowhere-near-as-good TV serial). Being Billy Liar’s age (and irrespective of ten years later sharing a bar with Keith Waterhouse and thinking him something of a disheveled and drunken old arse rather than the sharp folk-hero I’d wanted him to be – see also Hunter Thompson ibid), I identified massively with Billy. OK, I didn’t live in a northern town, didn’t work in the town I grew up in for more than a week before I did what Billy didn’t, and managed to escape to London and didn’t get engaged even once, let alone twice simultaneously. But like Billy I’d got myself stuck with a girlfriend who although somewhat more enthusiastically accommodating than the dread Barbara in the book, wasn’t something I wanted to encourage long-term. The problem being I was massively in lurrrrve, with a capital LUR. And it wasn’t with her. That’s what my book turned out to be about, and it’s become my Billy Liar, something I re-read again and again, to the extent that sometimes I have problems recalling what parts are total fiction and which bits were actual things that happened or I know of that had happened, that I recycled and hung around the necks of my characters in Not Your Heart Away.

Read it. Buy it. Double my sales. It doesn’t fit neatly into any literary category, and certainly not into any commercial one I’ve ever found. I wrote it primarily because I wanted to read something like Billy Liar but based outside a big town, in the kind of place I grew up in, in the times I grew up in. I couldn’t find anything at all like that, so I wrote it. Friends have the same problem reading it. I’ve been asked about when I was driving that Aston-Martin, however many times I explain that yes, I have driven one and yes, that feeling was exactly the way I described in, but that was in my thirties, not when I was half-drunk stuck in a country pub that isn’t there any more. Tragically also, I didn’t do the real Claire, contrary to the needling the central character’s lifelong friend repeats for decades. And no, obviously that wasn’t her name.

I suppose if you can re-read something you wrote nearly ten years later and still think hmm, there really isn’t much I’d change, then it’s got to be sort of OK. OK enough to win the BBC Writer’s Room anyway, when I turned it into a screenplay. It was one of five winners out of three and a half thousand other scripts; the fact that life is totally unfair was demonstrated again when my very first pitch to my very first production company didn’t actually result in them making the film.

The b****rds.

Billy Liar was there in ’59 too. As Michael Caine used to say, not a lot of people know that. I didn’t until today. You do, now.

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The book what I wrote

A few years ago I wrote a book and that. Like Charles Dickens, I used my experiences and memories of stuff that had happened to me and turned it into fiction. I know this has been a hard thing for some people to grasp. Just as presumably, they have trouble with the idea that there never actually was someone called Pip or Bob Cratchett, or a legal case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a title which always makes me think of Randal and Hopkirk (Deceased). It’s probably my age or something.

I used a literary technique we writers call ‘Making Things Up’ to some effect; it was one of five winners of the BBC Writers Room competition out of a field of 3,500. After that I wrote another screenplay called Janni Schenck, a fictional story about a real-life character I met once, an old man who had been a young boy in Germany in the 1930s. That was entered for Cannes by the Maison des Scenaristes. I showed it to a friend once. She said she never wanted to read it again. I asked her why. She told me that ‘kids like Janni killed half my family in Vienna.’ The only shred of intelligence I could find stopped me singing ‘this means nothing to me.’ Luckily.

So far so blah. Another two screenplays, one about Hereward, the forgotten Saxon with anger management issues and one about Shingle Street, just down the road from me. And then yesterday a phone call out of the blue. Would I like to meet a TV company on Monday to talk about writing a series for the BBC?

I looked back to the Not Your Heart Away reviews this morning and found the nicest thing anyone ever wrote about my stuff. It went like this:

For those men of a certain age, who grew up in an era of patchouli oil, smoky pubs and vinyl records, Not Your Heart Away is a sort of emotional time machine which instantly, effortlessly and somewhat disturbingly transports the reader back to their adolescence. It would be cliched – and untrue – to refer to this as an age of innocence. Carl Bennett’s nineteen year old protagonist Ben has mostly one thing on his mind and it certainly isn’t innocent. But there is a strange naivete about a pre-satnav and iPod world where driving any distance involved maps and cassette players, and a Zippo lighter, twenty Marlboros and a pint of cider was about as good as it got.

But Bennett’s second novel – which picks up where last year’s debut A Day For Pyjamas left off – is much, much more than a nostalgia trip for middle-aged men the wrong side of 50. Themes of loss – loss of love, loss of innocence, loss of friends – are interwoven with asides and observations on such diverse subjects as UFOs, rolling the perfect joint and the legend of the Glastonbury Thorn. Not many authors could juxtapose Bob Marley and AE Houseman, Patti Smith and Shakespeare, and get away with it, but these characters make it sound perfectly natural. There is a dreamlike, sun-tinted quality to Bennett’s prose which derives in part from his ability to evoke the wide open spaces of Salisbury Plain, the delicious (and never to be repeated) laziness of post-A level summer holidays and the sheer joy of a road trip with friends in a car borrowed from your parents.

And throughout, the aching, the sweating nervousness, the misunderstandings and the real fear of first love. On one level it would be easy to dismiss Not Your Heart Away as a familiar tale of teen angst and unrequited love. Ben’s stumbling, fumbling and ultimately humiliating pursuit of Claire will strike a chord with many of us. But it is Bennett’s gut-wrenching, relentless, visceral ability to put the reader in that place, at that time, with that girl – to enable us to say, “that’s me, that was my story” – which puts the novel in a class of its own.

Not Your Heart Away is not without flaws. Whether deliberately or not, the narrative bewildering switches from past to present tense and back again – sometimes within the same sentence. Ben’s best friend Peter, a key character in the first half of the story, disappears without trace in the second and is never heard of again. Theresa, Ben’s unimaginative and undemanding girlfriend, suffers a similar fate and somewhat conveniently fades into the background. At times, the verbal jousting between characters is confusing and repetitive. The lack of resolution or denouement is strangely unsatisfying and there is no doubt that when, in the closing stages, the story catches up with the present and we encounter the middle-aged Ben, the writing lacks the insight and depth of earlier chapters. Perhaps this feeling of loose ends still unravelled, and fates not yet determined, is deliberate. After all, life rarely has neat conclusions, and more rarely still is there a “happy ending”. Maybe it’s just a ploy to get us to buy the third and final part of Ben’s story. 
But these are minor complaints. Not Your Heart Away is, by any standards, a remarkable story. It takes you back to a time and place – not just a memory but a palpable, tangible time and place – just as surely as a whiff of dope or a snatch of Roy Harper. It is both unsettling and comforting, dream and reality, fact and fiction. If you left school in the late 1970s, it is not just Ben and Claire’s story, it’s yours. As Ben himself says, “It’s soul, it’s heartland. It’s where I’m from.”


I didn’t even have to slip him a fiver for the review.

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Days are hastening on

In not even three weeks now it’s going to be Christmas. Somehow. Just as I’d bought a new scarf to replace the brilliant one I found maybe five years ago, hanging on the door of a pub where it had been for more than three months, the one a Scottish girlfriend loathed on the grounds, big, triangular, gold, red and brocade with tassels on it as it was that ‘THAT’S A WIMMIN’s SKERF!’

Somehow, the words ‘Aye, wittabootut?’ didn’t seem to calm things down at all. Rather the opposite, in fact.

I’d got my fingerless gloves out of the drawer this morning, pausing once more to regret not buying those elk-skin ones in that shop in Dam Square must have been fifteen winters back, but they were about 150 euros so there were reasons.

scan-9-version-2But more than that, the last few days I’ve been waking up thinking it’s Christmas. The first time was because I’d left the heating on and being British and of a certain age and type of person who just does and doesn’t do certain things, and I suspect, probably from not having had children, I turn the heating off about an hour before going to bed. Unless, well, you know. If I have guests who might feel the cold, as it were.

The second because I’d lit some scented candles because I’d forgotten to take the bin out after making a fish thing and it was that or set light to the house and walk away from the smell.

But the rest, I don’t know. I’ve been teaching, the last intake of students were the best and worst I’ve ever had, their behaviour got so bad that my class was actually moved so we didn’t disturb other classes and I came home that day feeling I had to either stop teaching forever and do something else or sort out what was going wrong that evening. I did the second, to the extent that for the rest of their course they worked solidly, hard, well and as near as makes no difference, in silence except when they should have been talking.

And then it stopped. No more students this term. No more commute. And no teachers, books, Alice Cooper or evening walks around a crisply cold Christmas Fair in the reflected glow of floodlit a Norman tower solidly brooding the centuries into millennia.

It makes me think of Christmas holidays years ago, at school and just after, when everyone I knew drove out in a cavalcade of cars and motorcycles people pretend are classics now to a pub that’s become someone’s house, deep in the fields, to sit under gas space heaters in sub-zero temperatures, marvelling at each other’s new coats and stories and boots and leg warmers and jeans and the certain knowledge that as Chris Rea put it, in so many ways, like the time a girl said no, don’t open this gate down a lane you think is a shortcut, just no. A lane that turned out to lead to an unfenced quarry late one night; past here there was no place to go.

And everything, as Ben said.

I wake up every morning right now, thinking it’s then. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe it’s because people are showing some interest unexpectedly in Not Your Heart Away again. Maybe it’s because I’m writing again, properly, doing the thing I should always have done.

I don’t know. But I like this feeling, these ever-circling years on the wing.



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The sweet spot

Saturday and a new job starting tomorrow. One I’ve wanted to do, one that I’ve been angling for for a year since asking on the off-chance. The heat of the year is gone and the wind moving the blinds is cool on my skin.


This is my time of year, the time I was born. The time, literally this year, of going back to school, but not the school I went to and not the lessons I had to sit through.

Not too, the roads I used to know to get there, nor my friend I used to hitch to Bath with. Nor Limpley Stoke hill covered with trees, nor Bath itself, where the head-shops sell Agas now.

I bake bread about three times a week. Sourdough depends on a lot of things, but on its culture largely. I think too, on the temperature. And right now, it’s sourdough sweet spot temperature, not too cold, not too warm. I make it because bread from shops is never my bread. There are breads I like as much, but not many of them.

The recipe is always the same. 300g of flour and pretty much any flour will do. 200g of water, weighed into the bowl. Olive oil, salt. And the culture. And maybe a little more water. After a day, when it’s bubbling, another 300g of flour, knead it just a bit and give it another day. Then bake it.

The culture’s been going since August Bank Holiday 2012, when I got back from my friend’s house in Dorset and started writing Not your Heart Away.  I haven’t stopped. And I haven’t stopped baking, either. I’ve been doing both this morning.

Where I grew up I was told that nobody would want to read anything I wrote. Some people have different parents. Ones who know what people want to read, for example. They were wrong, but it’s taken a long time to get that message out of my head.

I finally know what I’m doing. People do read it and more will. And today, this Saturday with a hint of chill about it, the weather just right to let you know that with hot comes cold, with summer comes winter, that lets you know that the season of hitching through foggy Wessex valley bottoms in a maniacally driven blue Mazda truck is also the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, that lets you know that being there, then, was a precious gift, that my friend is and was and will be too, this is a sweet spot.

The bread’s come out just right. Maybe this morning’s writing has, too.




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Wordle Your Heart Away

Wordle: Not Your Heart Away


I always wondered how they did that. Then came along and like a lot of things, anyone could do it now. Sort of.

These are some of the words from Not Your Heart Away, the book what I wrote.  This is from an early section. I think it would be interesting to do it again, from the middle and the end. All it is is cut and paste these days, not weeks in a graphics lab.

Have a go yourself. You don’t even have to write a book or anything.

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The past is another country

What farms are those?
What farms are those?

Not Your Heart Away steals its title from Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad. The poem had two main themes, the idolization and mythology of the English countryside and sound advice to a young man, to give not his heart away so young, advice which Ben, the late teenage narrator ignores as any young man should.

The book is set in 1980 or thereabouts. A distant time now; a period teetering on the brink of monumental change at a personal and national level to all of which Ben was almost totally oblivious.

Along with his girlfriend Theresa, school-friends Liz and Peter and more distant, contemporarily more desirable (read ‘richer’ in proto-Thatcherite Britain) friends Claire and Poppy, Ben is stuck between adulthood and childhood, school and university, home and something much stranger, much more desirable. The small town girlfriend is going nowhere, Peter’s going to work, Liz is going to university, Poppy to Drama School if she can convince anyone to let her in and Claire, the girl he doesn’t think he can get, is about to fall off a cliff as her secure, affluent world implodes in the wake of her parents’ wife-swapping disaster and the first of a long line of bankruptcies that underscored the Thatcher revolution.

Nothing out of the ordinary really happens. The group of friends drives to see a play and avoid a car crash on the way. They have a lust-charged picnic on the river then eat dinner in a restaurant, struggling not only with the menu but with the fact that the nice old man at the bar was a Nazi when he was their age. Ben can’t stop looking at Claire all through the theatre performance; the real reason he arranged the trip in the first place.

He learns about the summer job that will take her away from him during the drive back. After totally failing to recognise a nice middle-class girl’s way of offering herself on a plate Ben arranges a trip to London on an errand and accidentally-on-purpose gets off with Claire’s best friend. Moping about back in Wiltshire and trying to convince Liz that he’s going to be a famous writer Ben’s world explodes again when he discovers Claire not 5,000 miles away as he thought but sitting in the back room of a pub drunk, half-mad with rage, a U.S. deportation notice and the keys of a stolen Aston-Martin in her bag.

Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true, so long as you believe it is

It’s a tale of country pubs that no longer exist, some drinking, driving and drug-taking that nowadays might bring a smile of indulgence to the lips of the most hardened front-line police officer, of blue remembered hills and myths. At the same time the book is a requiem for lost love, lost songs and lost times. Ben finally gets the girl but really should have asked himself if that was going to be the best thing; when he loses her again all too easily in a world devoid of Google and Facebook and mobile phones the rest of his life becomes a morass of blame and regret as each successive partner fails the Claire-test.

It’s probably not their fault, not even a bit as Ben says, but they still just aren’t Claire. Ultimately, thanks to Liz, Ben’s oldest friend of all, he finds her again. But Claire is a continent away, her old house is now a hotel, Liz and Ben have some talking to do that can’t be put off much longer and Claire’s son bears a strange resemblance to someone Ben sees every morning when he shaves. The past is another country. They do things differently there. But Ben’s problem is that he never really left.

You can buy it here: Not Your Heart Away.

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Get Not Your Heart Away free

I know how much those words stir the soul of every netizen.

It’s true. For two days only, Not Your Heart Away is free to download on Kindle.

Just go to the Amazon website here.

If you don’t have a Kindle you can still get it. Go to the Kindle website and you can download the reader software, again totally free. It’ll work on PCs, Macs and anything else you’ve got.

Why Am I Doing This?

Because I care. Ha ha! Fooled you!

Because I want as many people as possible to read this book, to talk about it, to review it, to say to their friends “there’s this really good book.”

So that’s what I’m giving. Now your turn. If you download it would you please just do this tiny thing for me? Review it. Say what you think about Not Your Heart Away on Amazon, on Goodreads, anywhere else you can think of. If you like it, say why. If you don’t, I’d still like you to say why.

So far there’s only been one intellectual “sounds like s**t” from someone who hadn’t read it and then went on to demonstrate his intellectual dexterity by asking if the title was written by Yoda (laugh? I broke ribs laughing…) and then bravely changed his status on Facebook to avoid any discussion of his proclamation.

If you can do a review in a little more detail I’d love to hear it. Meanwhile Bernard Levin, that restraining order still stands.


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So far so fiction

Just for my own vanity and to convince myself there’s actually something getting done (and of course to give myself an excuse for not writing today, because I was doing this instead) I thought I’d make a list of the things I’ve written.It’s not a hugely long list, nothing that should worry Will Self or Julie Burchill. 

In the beginning, there is, was and will be A Day For Pyjamas, to lift shamelessly from The Once & Future King. That’s something I haven’t read for years, not since I stayed up half the night reading it one May morning long ago in Veryan, down on the Roseland Peninsula, gone there for the usual reasons. ADFPs was written when I was 18, in a flurry of activity immediately after my A Levels that might possibly have been better expended before them. It was short at just under 50,000 words although for years I was convinced it was 82,000; there were no word-processing programmes back then. It was staccato and brittle and when I read it now I think that it could have been developed into something more. I had no clue about how to go about getting it published and I’ve told that story elsewhere here, how I sent it to Pan thinking if they published Sven Hassel they’d probably want a crack at this too. They didn’t. After some shambling around with and by Bath Arts Workshop, so much a part of the right-on revolution that they managed to burn their own building down experimenting with a cooking fire on a 200 year-old wood floor, it went in a drawer to be taken out periodically to impress the more impressionable girls I wanted to convince I was artistic and that they really ought to.


Over twenty years later in 1999 I wrote Unfinished, a radio play based on a true story. All my writing is based on true stories; I don’t have much imagination, but I like tales and talking. Even listening, sometimes. When I was about 10 years old there was a plan to build a big new road through marshland near Nailsea in Somerset, where my mother’s family lived for hundreds of years. In those days it was a big village outside Bristol rather than the sprawling commuter suburb it’s become and being close to Bristol it had its share of bombing in World War Two. Before that, around about 1920 my grandfather became the first man in the village to fly; two airmen put down on the Moor and held a raffle for fuel. My grandfather, born in 1901 won the raffle and saw the world he never left circumscribed by his ten or so minutes in the air. Several of the older people in the village knew there were un-recovered and certainly unexploded bombs on the Moor. They were all over the village. My grandmother had a German incendiary bomb on her windowsill all through my childhood; all of her friends did, until the day when predictably, someone discovered that one of them quietly sitting there for the past thirty years wasn’t the emptied-out metal casing everyone had happily assumed it was. That was the story really, the war lingering on in this quiet, sunny rural place where my grandfather ran the pub and the Air Raid Patrol, just before the village was swept away under a tide of breeze blocks and hire-purchase.

Suffolk Blue was a short story about a man who finds some valuable stamps and wonders how to sell them without the owner noticing, whoever the owner might be. I had a story about the fall of the Twin Towers in my head, about a man who simply walked away using the cover of the disaster to re-start his life. Selling some maybe stolen stamps was part of the imagining of that bigger story I still haven’t done anything with.

Golden Cap was a bit of flash fiction I liked a lot, apart from the fact it’s too short. That’s not meant to be funny. I don’t really see the point of flash fiction if you’re going to take the time to sit down and read something anyway. It was about Dorset, theft and the sudden realisation your life is going to change that day, in this case that of a wealthy female City worker who finds herself unceremoniously out of a job.

School Lane or more properly The Universal Boy was entered for the Bridport Prize last year and didn’t get anywhere; when I saw the school-run sagas that did I wasn’t that surprised. That was another true story I heard at first hand from a man in a pub around about 1998. A thin, white haired man in his 70s was arguing with a thickset shaven headed drinker in his 20s. The old man was furious at being called a Nazi just because he’d been in the Hitler Youth. He told how his village had been visited one day in April 1945 by a car load of SS men who collected all the boys together, marched them up to a bunker, gave them machine guns and grenades and told them to stop the Americans who would be there in about half an hour. Job done, the SS men bravely drove off towards Switzerland. The village schoolmaster paraded all the boys in the village square then beat them senseless before he made them throw all of their new weapons in the ditch and saved all of their lives. I keep meaning to do more with that; it needs quite a lot of work finding out about German villages first and there are other things to do.

There was Recover written for Ip-Art, which was a runner-up last year, a daft bit of nothing about an imaginary new drug used to alleviate the symptoms of old age, essentially by putting patients into a coma. That was quite fun to write and fun to be at the festival, in the Spiegeltent.

I Was An Accidental Sex Tourist is repeatedly failing to get published in any of the self-proclaimedly edgy and street magazines.  It’s a mystery to me, really. I think it’s quite a good story, putting me in mind of a day I went to Tijuana. No, I don’t know why either. It wasn’t for the donkey-show.

The very most recent thing I’ve written is No Batteries Required, which might well be coming to you on a local radio station very soon, if you live in Suffolk. It’s about a bankrupt chicken farmer who blames an Eton-educated celebrity chef for the EU ban on battery hens and decides to kidnap him to make him recant, live on TV. It’s not the farmer’s fault that the Prime Minister wants to make the chef Minister of Food and drives down to his farm the very same day.

Not Your Heart Away, well, you can read the story of that all over this blog. Is a book, might get an agent, might be a film. I’ve done one proper pitch for it and someone’s really kindly helping me get it into shape for another, much more grown-up and prepared pitch soon. Which reminds me I’d better finish tidying it up.

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A Voice Of Their Own

“The characters just had a life of their own. They wrote the book, not me. I don’t know where they came from. I had one idea in my head for where the story was going, but they changed it. It’s as if – as if they were somehow speaking through me.”

Ever read this? I have.  It’s rubbish.

Statutory plug for Not Your Heart Away

When I was writing Not Your Heart Away I wanted to make sure the three main female characters, above everything else, were not just believable but equally importantly, different from each other. It’s one of the hallmarks of rubbish fiction that however many people appear in the book they have just two voices, one male and the other female. Often that means those two say pretty much the same things too, except one of them twists her ankle when she’s being chased by a lion and has to be rescued. Hey, this is MY story, ok? Write your own if you don’t like mine.

I was paid an odd compliment yesterday: ‘If I didn’t know you I’d have said whoever wrote it was gay, because he knows what women think.’ Odd in two ways, I thought. First a sad comment on my fellow Suffolk metrosexuals, or as this is a predominantly rural area maybe retrosexuals would be more appropriate. Maybe that’s what she meant.

Secondly though, I can’t remember ever writing a single word about what any other character except the narrator ever thought about anything. It’s a first-person narrator story – Ben can’t think about anything anyone else thinks because he has to be told it or see it. Aside from the format of the form, he’s supposed to be 18 or 19. Of course he can’t think what anyone else thinks. Especially girls. He can barely articulate what he thinks himself, for heaven’s sake. But flattering anyway. And almost as odd as the person who told me she admired the book as a treatise about the way women face choices in their lives and reach crossroads that decide who they are going to be.  Er yeah, that’s what I hoped it would be. Allow me to pour you some wine?

But rubbish as the idea that the characters had to tell their own story is (ok, let’s see them do it. Come on. I’m waiting), I know what the idea means, that they decide what’s going to happen. Except they don’t. It’s the way they speak.

The Uses of English

Somebody wrote that an Englishman and by extension woman, only has to open his mouth to make another Englishman despise him. I think despising is too strong a word for it and quite un-English in itself. Making another Englishman say ‘really?’ is quite damning enough. Even better these days, you can get them to repeat their nonsense on Twitter if you put your mind to it, so everyone can see. Only one of the characters in NYHA speaks with anything much approaching an actual accent, although another one is afraid they might do. Mostly they speak like totally normal young people, not very rich, not very poor. Where words are used as weapons in the book it’s mostly as a defensive mechanism rather than an indicator, conscious or otherwise, of social class.

But they all had to have individual voices. That’s where ‘they took it over’ comes from. Whatever the story, in a dialogue-lead novel where the things that are said are much more indicative than the things that are done, there being very few helicopter gunship shoot-outs in the book now, it has to be the words that matter. The phrasing. And once you’ve got a character’s phrasing in your head that’s the only way they can speak. That’s what leads the story down a track you maybe hadn’t thought of. A character can’t say something except in their own voice and unless you want to go down the Raymond Chandler route you just have to trot after them and nudge them round to where you wanted them to be, but not so hard you make them speak like someone else.

What ‘they took over and their words just flowed out of me’ means is simple: it took me three days to get that character back to where I’d planned they were going to be, because I couldn’t be arsed to rip-up what I’d done and start again.  And they were speaking in character and real life isn’t linear very often. Not as often as we’d all like to pretend, anyway.

Raymond Chandler had the advantage of writing about violent murderous drunks, after all. Whenever he got stuck down a dead-end in the text he just had someone kick the door open, holding a gun. Maybe I should try that, next time.

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The Riddle of the Stains

Once up a time proper chaps and chapeseses spoke in RP, the BBC’s Received Pronunciation. Or we were supposed to, anyway. It was designed, created, invented even, when for the first time everyone in the country was being spoken to and could actually hear the words back in the 1920s and ’30s, when radio ruled. It wasn’t about snobbery, which is easy to assume now. It was about mass communication, a common pronunciation designed so that everybody could understand it, whatever their accent.

It doesn’t come from anywhere. That was the whole point. It blends aspects of lots of different accents into one. Like any other accent it became exaggerated for better or worse into the  strengled viles Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard used in Brief Encounter, which tragically, still does it for me. It was interesting at the university reunion last weekend to hear how many people were using it more or less, although none of us would have admitted it without water-boarding. Despite that, I tried to keep extreme accents out of Not Your Heart Away. Nobody’s commented on them yet, anyway.

I was talking to a friend about the general rubbishness of estate agents, the sort of conversation Celia and Trevor would have been quite at home with.

“Yes, I see thet.”

Splendid! The whole reason I was thinking about this at all was due to an estate agent, or rather remembering the way she spoke when I was selling a house once, back so long ago that you could actually (a) sell houses and (b) make a profit doing it! Rarely! It was true!

I’m not jaking!

Even then the estate agent woman was something of an anachronism. She didn’t just have a tartan skirt, but also a huge chrome safety pin for it, the sort of rig I’d never actually seen on anybody over six years old. She could safely have put a couple of decades onto thet.

The house was a bit of a wreck when I bought it. We moved the bathroom down a floor, put another one in upstairs, moved the kitchen from the middle floor to the ground floor, made a study and treated and re-stained the wooden beams in the kitchen, which is what I assumed the estate agent woman was talking about. She seemed keen.

“Rarely like the stains! Did you do them?”

Yes, I said, after I did the woodworming.

Rarely? You hed woodworm thar?

Lots of it. All fixed now. So of course the wood needed to be made to look good after that.

The woman looked at me to see if I was trying to be funny. She looked at the wall and the mullioned windows, the way the sunlight caught the mellow Cotswold ashlar masonry blocks and turned to me again.

Nay! The stains! 

Ah. Ok. The ones they dug out of a quarry a long time ago. No, they were already there. For the last 300 years and more.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye.


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