Thursday, 16 November 2017

Dreaming Jamila Gavin

Very odd experience last night, of falling asleep as I was reading… which I quite often do… but last night I was in the middle of Jamila Gavin’s potent and heady fairy tale collection, ‘Blackberry Blue’ which I’d been sent as a present by Nick just yesterday…  I was fading out just before the end of the story called ‘The Purple Lady’… and the first I knew of it I had the characters in the story actually telling me what was going on… that they were on a mission to save the hero’s sister… by collecting up the fragments of her skeleton, and then her disembodied eyes… and then, looking for her soul, they were crossing the lake where it’s fatal for your reflection to be caught… and this is the thing – I was there with Bernard Socks, who had fallen asleep on top of my legs… and we were both on this boat, heading towards the end of the story and the characters were telling us – really clearly – ‘We have ran out of story, you fool! You’ve gone and fallen asleep and now we can’t get to the end and find out what happens to us…!’  It was the strangest, most wonderful dream – in which the characters were trying to wake me up, so I could carry on reading for them.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Birthday Presents Past

I’m not someone who enjoys a big fuss on his birthday. In recent years some of the nicest have been spent in very simple ways. When our house was hideously damaged by people working on next door’s roof, our ceilings were smashed in and all our belongings were coated with ancient, greasy soot. That year we went into town and had tea at Marks and Spencers’ cafĂ©. Everything was clean and white in there and it felt like such a respite and a treat to sit somewhere like that. Home was hellish and we were caught up in endless clean-ups and insurance wrangles. To sit somewhere tidy, sipping tea and not having to face our predicament seemed enough of a treat that year.

Others were busy and filled with people. Nights on Canal Street in my thirties: booking a table at Velvet or Taurus or in Chinatown. A table for twenty and lots of fuss and surprises. All good fun, but exhausting, really. Others, I was in Norwich, and we’d fill half a restaurant with faculty and students and visiting writers. (Remember Colleen, the quietest of the secretaries being tipsy and pretending to do a pole dance as everyone waited for taxis?) Then, right back when I was twenty: my first birthday away from home. It was the term we moved into our first student house and we all went for a Chinese. My first banquet! We dressed up smart. It was the day Waterstones had opened in Lancaster and I spent my book vouchers on ‘The Naked Lunch’ and ‘To the Lighthouse.’

My favourite birthday of all is still 1982 and my thirteenth.

Mam kept a brilliant surprise. A tape recorder. Something I longed for and dreamed about owning. The thing I wanted to do most in the world was to make my own audiobooks. I wanted to record stories I was writing with sound effects and music. I wanted to record shows off my portable TV and play them back in my headphones. Victoria Wood, The Two Ronnies, Doctor Who. With a tape recorder I would put my new tape player right up to the TV’s speakers and whizz the sound up. I’d create my own cassette covers and I’d keep them all in the plastic cassette cases I’d coveted in Boots. I would have a collection of soundtracks on cassette. All the old Universal horror movies they showed late at night: I’d record all them as well. I’d focus on the words and listen again and again, learning the tune of their reams of dialogue, wearing my headphones and walking round our estate doing my teatime paper round, or hurrying off to school and blocking out the world.

Mam was excited about giving presents, too. Things weren’t easy and she had to save or put down money each week in the catalogue. I think she was really excited about the tape recorder because she knew it was something I wanted so badly. And, the night before my birthday, she decided to try it out. She unwound the flex and opened the sample cassette tape. It was rainbow-coloured and just a few minutes long.

‘Hello, Paul! Happy birthday! It’s your thirteenth and now you’re a teenager! And here’s a nice surprise for you!’

She sang ‘happy birthday’ and her voice sounded so young and high, like a kid herself. I can still hear it now if I think about it. The tape went missing many years ago. We moved house again and again and belongings went astray. There are loads of books and drawings books and things I would love to have salvaged. But first among them is that sample tape with Mam’s message on. Not because of the daft stories and sound effects I tried out on the rest of it over the next couple of days (I made a short play about Dan Dare and the Mekon using sound effects from household implements and music from Geoff Love’s superhero album) but for Mam’s short message at the start.

Everything about that tape recorder was wonderful. I loved the little spools going round, and the grinding noise of fast-forwarding, and the fact you could fill it with batteries and take it out on location outside. Even when, a couple of years later, it started going wrong, and the Play button tended to malfunction, I blamed myself rather than the machine. It couldn’t be going wrong and failing, it had to last forever, didn’t it? It must be me using it wrong, somehow. It was my favourite thing in the world.

Mam’s always loved giving presents, so much. Even when – especially when – she couldn’t afford them. A couple of years ago I visited just before Christmas and for a variety of reasons it was a tense time. When I left I was catching the train and couldn’t carry the bag of presents she left out on the top landing. She was ill and the night before she’d flipped out for some reason and yelled at me and took to her bed, and I, of course, was horrified and upset and couldn’t deal with it at all. And the presents were put out on the landing in the morning and she never came to say goodbye. The presents seemed an aggressive offering, somehow.

There was no way, either, I could carry them with all the bags I already had. I tried saying it was too early to do Christmas things and we’d come back through and swap all our gifts in person. But it didn’t work out that way. It turned into an ugly fight, somehow, by phone and email and all those other, silly modern ways we have of sending and preserving and distorting our voices. I should have just taken that bag, even though I couldn’t actually manage with the luggage I already had on that ridiculously busy train.

Accepting gifts is so often about trying not to give offence and seeming delighted for their givers’ sake, not your own. Usually I rather like that. It’s lovely to see the pleasure someone else has in giving you something. It feels as good, sometimes, as being the one handing over the perfect, well-chosen gift and watching the recipient’s face.

Presents can be tender, treacherous things, though. All you’re wanting, really, is the affirmation that someone you love has spent a little time thinking about you. Devoting time to you, for just a little bit.

That’s the bit that always catches in my heart, and it’s why that cassette tape with Mam’s message is still the most wonderful present I ever got. It was a splinter of recorded time. A perfect moment that should have been there forever, and I wish it still was.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

The Magrs Chronicles - my lecture for the Edinburgh Book Festival 2017

In August I gave a lecture at the Edinburgh Book Festival about Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and more broadly about my becoming a reader of science fiction as a kid. Along the way, it's also an essay about using libraries and the way that parents can influence a child's reading. 

The whole text is available on my Patreon page as of today -

and here is a taster... please do and go subscribe to my Patreon to read the rest...!


When I was a kid everything was science fiction and the reason I’ve always loved the stories of Ray Bradbury is that I think he felt the same.

This essay / lecture is about the fact that I believe the rockets and outer space and travelling to Mars were always some kind of sideshow and a pretext and a pretence that the future and science fiction itself all happened on other planets. It didn’t. It was happening here, all the time.

I was a nineteen-seventies kid. Elton John sang about doing a 9 to 5 job ferrying passengers to Mars and he wore moon boots, jumpsuits and giant glasses. Everyone was covered in glittery make-up and astronauts arrayed themselves like David Bowie did, in punky space-age drag.

In the 1970s all the aliens came from Earth – Zygons, Silurians and bodysnatchers of every stripe had always been here, we learned. The Von Daniken ‘Chariots of the Gods’ idea, that pyramids were space ships and cryptic marks on desert floors were motorway maps of the stars. Invasions came to earth during the sun-baked summer holidays of the mid-Seventies and they came in the form of monsters brandishing kitchen appliances – deadly egg whisks and sink plungers.

Our food was science fiction. Impossible, unfeasible, almost inedible, with its e-numbers and preservatives and artificial colorants. If you looked inside us – kids from that era – we glow with phosphorescent hues. We ate so much specially-modified frozen food all our insides are dyed the amazing shades of the space-time vortex.

I grew up in the North East of England, coming to consciousness just as colour tellies were all the rage and people were starting to be able to afford them. My first TV memories are to do with Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz, Yellow Submarine – and also Jon Pertwee with a brilliant meringue of a hairdo, and an electric blue velvet jacket, being blasted with radiation on the Planet of the Spiders.

Travel to other planets was achieved through Buddhist meditation, the intervention of wicked arachnids and battered blue Police Boxes. The first science fiction I was aware of was utterly strange, utterly everyday and enchanting.

We lived on a council estate of blocky black-bricked buildings all designed by incredibly clever Swedish architects. A husband and wife team who dressed in matching mackintoshes and rain hats, who built their sleek dream home in the middle of our New Town, in acres of neglected grounds. We’d see them walking about the Council Estates they had doodled into being, holding hands, traipsing around like Bill and Ben – looking highly pleased by the elegant curves and the fact that no two streets in our town were the same. You could get lost forever in our social housing labyrinth.

As kids we played on the building sites, in the deep yellow pools of mud and sandpits and gravel heaps. Mucking about with detritus, finding mica nuggets and glossy tarmac chunks and hunks of plaster chalk. And we played down the Burn, which was the remaining strip of wilderness at the heart of our industrial town. A Brazilian jungle thicket into which we’d disappear for whole days at a time, fishing miniscule tiddlers out of the stream and hanging from the trees and making dens where we could read our library books and comics.

Our town was all concrete minimalist brutalism. To us kids it was space-age and we loved it. Ramps and walkways and vast concourses of cement and paving slabs. Smooth and wonderfully slippery when wet. Fantastic and deadly in ice and snow. A city made for robots and mechanical men. For androids and housewives on valium pushing trolleys up and down the soft lino of supermarket aisles.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

My blog went a bit viral...!

The past week has been a bit strange... what with that last blog post of mine, the story about Bowie and the autistic boy suddenly going viral. It was retweeted by all kinds of people - by Iman and Duncan Jones themselves, and then Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman... and thousands upon thousands of readers all over the world. And as of this afternoon it's had just about 160 thousand readers just on this blog alone. That's not counting, of course, all the tumblrs and other sites that shared it. 

160 thousand readers...!  Like my friend Simon said - imagine if all those readers paid a quid!

Which reminds me... I *do* have a Patreon page, where I publish new short stories and pieces weekly, and where you're invited to help support an impoverished writer to keep on going!  It's right here!

I think the piece I published here last week strikes a chord. I love the comments from people with autism, and parents with autistic children. I love the way people are talking and thinking about shyness and masks and the particular kind of magic that David did in that moment with the magic mask. I also love the fact that people have said that the story feels a bit like having David Bowie with us again, for just a few moments. I love it when people say they can hear him actually saying those words. 

Since last week I've been working and writing and channelling and fictionalising the real life material into a fully-fledged short story. It’s become a story set at Christmas, filled with magic and frost and flickering movies… and music, too. I’m calling it ‘Stardust and Snow’, and I’m hoping to publish it. I always wanted to publish a short Christmas book... a perfect Christmas story - like Truman Capote's 'A Christmas Memory', maybe. 

While I was in Scotland I sat in cafes writing and drawing – in both Glasgow and Perth. Here are some drawings from those damp, sunny October days, of people drinking coffee and eating cakes and working on laptops, just as I was, working on my story...

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

'Fancy Believing in the Goblin King'

‘Fancy Believing in the Goblin King’

My friend told me a story he hadn’t told anyone for years. When he used to tell it years ago people would laugh and say, ‘Who’d believe that? How can that be true? That’s daft.’ So he didn’t tell it again for ages. But for some reason, last night, he knew it would be just the kind of story I would love.

When he was a kid, he said, they didn’t use the word autism, they just said ‘shy’, or ‘isn’t very good at being around strangers or lots of people.’ But that’s what he was, and is, and he doesn’t mind telling anyone. It’s just a matter of fact with him, and sometimes it makes him sound a little and act different, but that’s okay.

Anyway, when he was a kid it was the middle of the 1980s and they were still saying ‘shy’ or ‘withdrawn’ rather than ‘autistic’. He went to London with his mother to see a special screening of a new film he really loved. He must have won a competition or something, I think. Some of the details he can’t quite remember, but he thinks it must have been London they went to, and the film…! Well, the film is one of my all-time favourites, too. It’s a dark, mysterious fantasy movie. Every single frame is crammed with puppets and goblins. There are silly songs and a goblin king who wears clingy silver tights and who kidnaps a baby and this is what kickstarts the whole adventure.

It was ‘Labyrinth’, of course, and the star was David Bowie, and he was there to meet the children who had come to see this special screening.

‘I met David Bowie once,’ was the thing that my friend said, that caught my attention.

‘You did? When was this?’ I was amazed, and surprised, too, at the casual way he brought this revelation out. Almost anyone else I know would have told the tale a million times already.

He seemed surprised I would want to know, and he told me the whole thing, all out of order, and I eked the details out of him.

He told the story as if it was he’d been on an adventure back then, and he wasn’t quite allowed to tell the story. Like there was a pact, or a magic spell surrounding it. As if something profound and peculiar would occur if he broke the confidence.

It was thirty years ago and all us kids who’d loved Labyrinth then, and who still love it now, are all middle-aged. Saddest of all, the Goblin King is dead. Does the magic still exist?

I asked him what happened on his adventure.

‘I was withdrawn, more withdrawn than the other kids. We all got a signed poster. Because I was so shy, they put me in a separate room, to one side, and so I got to meet him alone. He’d heard I was shy and it was his idea. He spent thirty minutes with me.

‘He gave me this mask. This one. Look.

‘He said: ‘This is an invisible mask, you see?

‘He took it off his own face and looked around like he was scared and uncomfortable all of a sudden. He passed me his invisible mask. ‘Put it on,’ he told me. ‘It’s magic.’

‘And so I did.

‘Then he told me, ‘I always feel afraid, just the same as you. But I wear this mask every single day. And it doesn’t take the fear away, but it makes it feel a bit better. I feel brave enough then to face the whole world and all the people. And now you will, too.

‘I sat there in his magic mask, looking through the eyes at David Bowie and it was true, I did feel better.

‘Then I watched as he made another magic mask. He spun it out of thin air, out of nothing at all. He finished it and smiled and then he put it on. And he looked so relieved and pleased. He smiled at me.

‘'Now we’ve both got invisible masks. We can both see through them perfectly well and no one would know we’re even wearing them,' he said.

‘So, I felt incredibly comfortable. It was the first time I felt safe in my whole life.

‘It was magic. He was a wizard. He was a goblin king, grinning at me.

‘I still keep the mask, of course. This is it, now. Look.’

I kept asking my friend questions, amazed by his story. I loved it and wanted all the details. How many other kids? Did they have puppets from the film there, as well? What was David Bowie wearing? I imagined him in his lilac suit from Live Aid. Or maybe he was dressed as the Goblin King in lacy ruffles and cobwebs and glitter.

What was the last thing he said to you, when you had to say goodbye?

‘David Bowie said, ‘I’m always afraid as well. But this is how you can feel brave in the world.’ And then it was over. I’ve never forgotten it. And years later I cried when I heard he had passed.’

My friend was surprised I was delighted by this tale.

‘The normal reaction is: that’s just a stupid story. Fancy believing in an invisible mask.’

But I do. I really believe in it.

And it’s the best story I’ve heard all year.


Note. I'm amazed that over 160 thousand readers have read this piece!  If you'd like to read further, exclusive stories and essays by me, I update my Patreon page with new material every week. Please do subscribe -