Wednesday, 17 October 2018

How It All Fits Together

It's a kind of map of everything I've published, and showing how some of the characters leap from book to book in unexpected ways...

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

A Year of the Goblin King

It's a year since I published this piece on my blog - and over two hundred thousand people read it - and then I developed it into a short story called, 'Stardust and Snow' - which I hope will see the light of day some day soon.

‘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Anyway, when he was a kid it was the middle of the 1980s and they were still saying ‘shy’ or ‘withdrawn’ rather than ‘autistic’.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.

Pictures for a Winter Story

I've been working on what might be illustrations for a story i wrote this time last year...

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Icons of Dr Who

Prompted by a request for a drawing for a charity fanzine this week, I've ended up painting a whole series of little pictures of Dr Who Icons...

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Nine Things at the Whitworth Gallery

Thickheaded in the morning – I’m still getting over last week’s germs. I have the most vivid dreams that I don’t remember at all. I was asleep when Jeremy and Bernard Socks came to bed last night. I left them watching the rest of Dr Strange. How luxurious it feels to fall asleep halfway through a film.
            The wind is blowing rowdily through Levy. Banners and broken bits of cloud go by and I feel the need to get out for a walk. To blow some of the sticky cobwebs out of my head.
            The only problem with reading great big Blockbuster novels for this project of yours is that when you buy them in hardback you can’t go carting them around with you.
            Remember: this is the time you’ve bought for yourself. To organize and fill up and to create stuff in. You bought it by being poor.


Taken you forty-five minutes to walk to the Whitworth Gallery. It’s proper autumn now. The yellow tree at the end of our street was completely bare. I missed its couple of days of being bright citrus yellow. Last year I dashed outside and painted it, splashily, just in time.
            You’re slightly trembly from walking three miles. That’s from not enough exercise. That needs tackling. You need to be out in the world, so here you are. You’re in the gallery with the pale wooden floor, where you came a few times for poetry readings.
            Walking across town, you gave yourself a firm talking to. You need to stop churning all the time with endless, misplaced dissatisfaction. Wishing you had achieved more. Wishing you were bigger, better, more secure. Wishing that the gigs you get asked to do were better ones and that they sold huge great quantities of your books afterwards. All these things you wish, of course.
            But if they weren’t to be, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it?
            Part of you always dreaded the shame of not achieving your dreams. Like there was a whole bunch of people waiting to laugh and jeer, and glad to be proved right about you. Who are these people and why should you care? Really, no one cares that much. Even if there are those who are waiting for you to fail, it doesn’t matter.                        
All I need to listen to is me, telling myself: ‘It’s all right to fail. Just do what you can.’
            Sure, it would be nice to be chased after, to be in demand. But I’m sure I’d find that annoying in the end, just as annoying as being neglected.
            As it is, your time is your own. You can fill up pages, sitting in public places. Pages and pages with nonsense like this.
            Ah, but this is Number One on your list of Nine Lovely Things, isn’t it?
            What are the Nine Things, you ask..?
            They are the Nine Things you fill your journals with.

1.    Burn off steam. Write down whatever comes into your head for at least ten minutes.
2.    A memory surfaces and you write it down.
3.    An idea comes out of nowhere.
4.    A bit of overheard dialogue.
5.    A drawing.
6.    Reading some of your current Beach House Book.
7.    Writing about your recent reading.
8.    Take a photo.
9.    Write a postcard or a letter. Probably forget to post it for a day or two.

These are the nine lovely things you do when you sit down somewhere with coffee. You’re probably alone. You can happily fill hours doing the Nine Things. They will lead off in lovely directions. It’s quite nice if you can make all nine things the letter that you then send to a friend, but you might need to take copies of some parts.


I wonder if I could just set myself up as the writer and artist in residence in any number of places without even telling them? I wonder if I could just declare myself thus and carry on, by virtue of sitting down and doing it in situ? I could be In Residence in this very gallery. Or Gemini Café up the road. Or the Museum room where Maude the Tigon is on display. Or Artist in Res at the Eye Museum, or the bit where they store the Women’s Own back issues in binders at Central Library. If you just said that’s what you were, would they check up? Could they even stop you?
            (I’m thinking about the Tate Liverpool where they did, in fact, stop you painting in a gallery, back in August.)
            The thing is, everywhere is so keen on their branding. They probably don’t want you tarnishing it by pitching up with your ragbag of notebooks and bits of paper. They’d probably want to advertise for such a thing. They’d want people tendering and pitching and making approaches. They’d want to make it more professional.
            Maybe you could be the Writer in Residence or the Artist in Residence for silly places? Frivolous places. Obscure places. Places that no one wants to hear about. The Barnados shop round the corner from us, for example. Venus Foods Turkish Supermarket. Or the yellow tree at the end of our street. But then, I suppose everywhere is owned by someone these days. Everything has a set of stakeholders or people who care about what happens there. You couldn’t simply adopt, a park, say, or a street corner and say: this is my bit to be In Residence at. Not unless someone gives you permission.

A friend of mine and Jeremy’s was on Facebook was saying that a female drag queen didn’t get a job as a drag queen and that the person who got the job was a male drag queen and that’s discriminatory. I’m still trying to get my head round that.
            On the way into the Whitworth Gallery there’s a poster advertising their big exhibition, and how it’s apparently about deconstructing racial stereotypes in the history of wallpaper. I think I got that right.
            Sometimes I’m not sure I get it anymore. Female drag queens up in arms. Racist wallpaper getting re-evaluated. And what was it they were making as a show-stopper on the Great British Bake-Off last week? Spiced biscuit chandeliers.
            Sometimes I think someone has put all the words and phrases I know into a large box and given it a bloody good shaking. All the words and ideas have recombined in peculiar ways and what we’re left with is often gibberish.

The racist wallpaper exhibition was as daft as it sounds. However, there’s a room of sumptuous, colossal tapestries created by Alice Kettle. They’re about migrants: one about land, one sea, one air. It’s apparent exactly what they’re about as soon as you study them. Tiny bodies of people, beasts and birds, drawn in collaboration with all kinds of migrants: stitched into these vast, glittering, quilted friezes.
There are a few cushiony bean bag things strewn about, too. One woman asks the guard (Curator? Warden? The woman with the walkie-talkie) ‘Excuse me, can we sit on these?’
‘No! They are structures.’
The same guard / curator / warden was telling people off for standing too close to the fragile fabrics while they were taking selfies with the art as a backdrop. The wardens with their squawking machines and their clipping up and down are quite a distraction. It feels like the whole place belongs to them, and we’re here sneaking around, hoping not to get caught out.
But that shimmering water – miles of it – rendered in stitches and tatters of cloth – it’s worth coming to see… despite the usual colossal faff on of doing art in public.


Gemini Café with frothy white coffee. It’s sunny and almost empty, as everyone strides by on the Oxford Road.
            So, I’ve had my gallery experience, which was mostly just me sitting and writing in my journal. Trying not to notice everyone going by. Towards the end there, when you were looking at the racist wallpaper and the refugee structures the whole place was suddenly swamped by elderly people. There were three coaches parked outside when you left.
            I’m drawing the old ladies sitting outside Gemini Café. They’re smoking their heads off.
            Two fellas sitting next to me are saying there’s not so much space round these tables and chairs. ‘Our Elsie would struggle in here, with her leg. Her game leg. Well, at least she’s got one. She’s almost addicted to morphine. They told her: you must be one of the bravest women alive. No, she wouldn’t like it in here, at all.’
            With that snatch of overheard dialogue, and nothing to read with me, I’ve covered almost all of the Nine Things. And I guess typing it up and posting this here – it’s almost like sending a letter.


Monday, 1 October 2018

Sunday and Reading

Sunday and Reading

Apart from putting dinner on
You don’t need to do anything
You’re content with your book
Nothing can bring you out of it

Feeling guilty and delicious
Imagine a whole life like that
And not giving a bugger for anything
But the book you’re with

Rarer than you want to be
Occasional as real Sunday lunch
With perfect Yorkshire puddings

The book must be good and big
It’s got to be trustworthy and fat
That’s the Blockbuster business

Like the meat and potatoes of a
Sunday roast and knowing
You don’t need to go anywhere
Just deeper into pages

When the book stops being there
And it’s just

A cloud of happening

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Impact at the Library Conference

Impact at the Library Conference

The head of the English department of a university I used to work at jumps up on the stage. ‘This is a huge conference! There are so many of you! All those tables! And look at you all! I tell you what, I’ve only been here an hour, and I’ve learned one thing. Librarians have really, really funky shoes.’
There is a scattering of enthusiastic applause at this. Everyone’s had a complimentary cocktail in the bar and they’re glad he’s buttering them up. We’re all dressed up a bit for the conference’s first night dinner and yes, our shoes are very funky indeed.
The head of the English department starts talking about his world-class university and how, with their wonderful Writing School and the MA in Childrens’ Writing they are ideally placed to be a stakeholder in this vibrant conference of children’s librarians, and how they are proud to be sponsors of this huge, marvelously diverse event.
‘Is anyone here from Norwich?’ he cries out. ‘Yes?’ And then: ‘Anyone in from Edinburgh..? Yeah..?’ There are a few cries and he nods, smiling. ‘Well, if you live there you know what it’s like to be a UNESCO City of Literature, and now we’re going to be one too! Thanks to the efforts of all my colleagues and myself, we are a going to be a World City of World Literature!’
Lots of clapping at this. I get out my notebook at the table. I might look like a mad person with a pen that lights up and my Elsa Lanchester notebook, but I want to write down some of the phrases he’s using. He’s got all the language and he knows how to use it.
‘Literature in this city is about the vibrancy of what’s happening now… and it’s very impactful… that very impact on people’s lives… literature and its diversity in this city of vibrant living… literature itself brings diverse vibrancy into people’s lives and there has been important research at our very vibrant university about that very thing…’
He describes all the wonderful trips he’s made to other universities in this country and abroad, talking about just these topics, spreading his impact. It’s amazing, he says, to feel connected to the world of literature like this, especially when you come from a city of world literature status. It’s bringing greatly added value to the world, and very impactful.
Then he explains that the plasma screen behind him has been scrolling through pictures of local writers – living and dead – with little blurbs about them. ‘And several of them are here tonight, at our wonderfully diverse conference, at your very tables. They are here to talk to you all over dinner about their writing and the impact that this diverse and vibrant city has had on their work.’
Then he reads out each writer’s name and pauses when they stand and wave their arms in the air and everyone claps a bit.
When it comes to my turn he says, ‘And my old office-mate, Paul Magrs.’
I stand up, blushing of course, and everyone claps.
I do not wave my arms. I swig my wine and narrow my eyes at him and sit down.
Then we all have to clap the particular woman in the English department who ‘does such great work on the outreach programme.’ When they all clap her I could scream. Back when I worked at that uni, between 2004 and 2011 every single staff meeting and public event used to feature a moment when the head of department (this one and his predecessor) would say: ‘Let’s all clap her for all the wonderful work she’s been doing on the outreach programme.’ I could never work out why she always needed thanking so much.
‘How long have we been running our children’s writing course and events?’ the head of the department calls out to her.
‘Ten years!’ she cries back. ‘Whew!’ and everyone claps.
Yes, I think. I know it’s ten years, but it was me whose idea it was and it was me who started it and taught it at the beginning.
Dreadful soup is delivered to the vegetarians while the clapping and the talking is going on. The woman next to me is a veggie. On her lanyard she has not only a printed name badge, but another card that says ‘Vegetable’ in large black letters. She holds it aloft, proudly, as the waitresses come round with their bowls of dreadful soup.
But when the terrines of pressed ham and peas come round I start wishing that I was a vegetable, too.
At least the head of the department has stopped talking. He has whipped them into a frenzy of diverse vibrancy and stepped down off the stage and gone to get his dinner.
There are two bottles of wine and most of the ladies round our table want white. Good. There’s only me and the nice woman with the vegetable tag who want red.
‘Do you get out much to things like this?’ I ask them.
‘No! Once a year! This is our trip out! This is our one chance to have fun and see other people doing the same kind of job…’
The woman next to her adds, ‘No one talks to you when you’re a school librarian. It’s only when you come to this conference and meet other ones…’
They’re a good talky bunch. We have almost two hours in each other’s company and we find that we’re all about the same age. We were all the last kids to do O levels. We all have interesting and clashing and noisy ideas about education and exams and reading and universities and courses and politics and we have a good old blether.
The woman from the outreach programme yomps past happily at one point and gives me a big grin. And – this isn’t like me at all – I scowl at her.
By the time dessert comes they’ve got two people reading and performing folk tales up on the stage. Tepid laughter follows a couple of corny gags. One of the writers cries out: ‘It’s meant to be funny, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t laugh – at least there’s still a point to our stories!’
Yes, I think. At least you have a point to your stories.
I text Jeremy and my lovely pals who are off having a curry in Rusholme. ‘I hate it here! I haven’t even got a name badge! Buy wine! Have it ready when I get home!’
And then I get up and shake the hands of all the good librarians who’ve talked to me this evening and distracted me from loathing my whole self and my useless career with their very interesting chat.
And so I hurry out of the ballroom, out through the bookshop, down a corridor, get a bit lost, find the lift and totter out into the Piccadilly night.