Thursday, 22 June 2017

Newton Aycliffe Branch Library

This is an excerpt from a lecture / essay I'm writing...

"Dad was in charge of my Saturdays. First he’d pick me up, in a scene reminiscent of Cold War dramas and the covert handing over of hostages and spies. Then – Newton Aycliffe town library. A tiny building, book-lined and safe, everything smoothed with plastic laminate. Chipboard and one glass wall. Familiar.
But he wouldn’t let me borrow anything from the fiction section.
‘Ah, lad. Story books are just for girls.’ He steered me firmly towards the other side of the Children’s section. And tried to get me reading books about football, war and cars.
I could have wept. I didn’t, though.
I found the bits of non-fiction that I could use. That I could make stories out of. Ancient Egyptians. Prehistoric Monsters. Romans. Vikings. Mysteries of the Unknown. UFOs. Ghosts. The Earth, Stars and Planets. These were the kinds of books I ended up receiving for birthdays and Christmas. Oh, he likes space, he likes nature and history. He likes Evolution and cavemen and dinosaurs.
My guilty secret was that I hardly ever read the text in those books. I pored over illustrations of luminously beautiful planets and graceful flesh-eating monsters at the dawn of time. All the factual matter I didn’t give a stuff about. I pretended to be taking it all in.
Instead I stared at rockets and tyrannosaurs and made up my own tales.
And I longed for fiction."

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Portraits for commission!

I'm now painting portraits! Please email me ( or send me a facebook message if you'd like me to paint a person or an animal you care about! A4 originals cost £50 and A3 £80, plus p&p. All I need are photos to work from. xp

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Martyn Hett and Manchester

Tonight I've been painting Martyn Hett. We keep hearing the name and seeing the face of the bomber and I don't want to. Today Martyn's story has really touched me and I'd rather remember his name and his face. I didn't know him, but he was one of ours.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

'Marked for Life'

Today I'm finishing proof-reading the reprinted edition of my very first novel, 'Marked for Life', from way back in 1995. It's such a strange experience, revisiting that younger self! I first wrote this book about tattooed men, nudist lesbians and stolen children 23 years ago...! This new edition from Steve Berman's brilliant Lethe press has this fab new cover by Matt Bright, two bonus short stories from the same year, and a new intro in which I look back at being in my mid-twenties...

Friday, 12 May 2017

Folk Tales on the Guardian Podcast!

This is a lovely project I've been involved in, with Simon Barnard, Andrew Scott, Air B&B and the Guardian. It's a series of five folk tales set in five European locations. This is the first of the set, newly available today! Please listen and tell them you like it! I'm very proud of these - and I love our theme tune! It all feels a bit like my favourite TV show of the 1980s - The Storyteller...

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Whoomins

The Whoomins

One purple morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of Lungbarrow. It fell noisily and discontinuously and in a few hours everything was smudgy and overly complicated.
            Whoomintroll stood in the doorway and watched his whole world settle down to sleep out the Wilderness Years, as they were to become known. ‘Tonight,’ he thought, ‘We will sleep for a thousand years and we’ll have the most fabulous dreams.’

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Wonderful, life-affirming 'Treehab' by Bob Smith

Bob Smith’s book of linked essays about nature, love and living a good life, ‘Treehab’ is like a breath of fresh air. It’s like spending a few days in wonderful company with a gentle, clever and generously funny man who’ll point out interesting stuff about nature, tell silly jokes, divert into an amazing anecdote about a friend and then suddenly get furious about an issue dear to his heart.

He’s a gay stand-up comedian and a novelist, a self-confessed ‘Nature Boy’, a father and a man suffering from a life-threatening neurological disease. All of these factors pay into every one of these essays – whether they’re about childhood fossil-collecting, salmon-fishing, gay activism, comedy, family history or novel research. It’s a lovely slim book of seemingly disparate parts that add up to a whole and coherent life story.

I love his tales of stand-up comedians in New York and their acidulously funny camaraderie, and I love his visits to Alaska and cold nights with hotties and various new friends. He writes about food and flowers and birds so beautifully and vividly. I love the way he seems to have the whole thing sorted out, and he has a wonderful, challenging bravado in calling out the assholes who’ve wrecked the world – the anti-enviromentalists and greedy governmnents and industrialists. He tackles asshole religions in a specially-dedicated chapter and it’s hilarious, but well-argued and fair. No, we shouldn’t respect any religion that is vicious and does wicked things to living beings – he’s quite right.

An elegant and witty book that combines the sacred, profane, the funny and the mundane. My very favourite moments of this volume celebrating nature are actually in the urban landscape. There’s an essay that has Bob describing an average walk around Greenwich Village with his boyfriend Michael and their beagle-basset, Bozzie. It’s homely, gorgeous and profound.

And my other favourite moment comes early. It’s to do with one of those times when you meet a great hero of yours, and no one else in the room realizes how amazing this person is. The anecdote is about a famed archeologist, Mary Leakey, whom Bob reveres, and met when he was waiting tables at an academic dinner where she was being honoured, but mostly ignored. She was a woman, he knew, responsible for finding fossilized footprints from our oldest freestanding survivors. A family group’s footsteps, preserved forever because of this distracted-looking woman at a glitzy dinner. Bob describes the moment he got to tell her how much he appreciated her years spent quietly-chipping-away at the truth, and their meeting and short exchange is, I think, magically told.

Mary imparts a tiny bit of brilliant wisdom – that by following her own instincts and inclinations always, she had enjoyed a wonderful life. It’s clearly a turning point in the young writer’s life, and thank goodness for that. After that he devoted himself to his art. (I love the fact he always talks about comedy and comic writing as art with a big A.)

This book’s full of those kind of moments, when you feel the shivery pleasure of having wise stuff imparted to you. Never pompous or hectoring. But ribald, gossipy, and sometimes cross. This is like a series of happy days and evenings spent with a friend (and several of their friends. And their dogs.)

Thursday, 27 April 2017

'Folk Tales and Legends' from 1981

I feel like I'm rescuing books from oblivion all the time.

Look at this wonderful recent find, from a charity shop in Heaton Mersey. 'Folk Tales and Legends' retold by Michaela Tvrdikova, with wonderful illustrations by Vojtech Kubasta, published by Cathay Books in 1981. It's the kind of book I would have loved to have found when I was eleven. How wonderful it would have been to be immersed in tales from Greece, China, Turkey and Spain at that age, and to find them richly illustrated like this.

At eleven I was reading Doctor Who and Star Trek and all kinds of stuff. I wasn't reading children's books or fairy tales anymore. It would be a few long years before I felt grown-up enough to return to children's literature...

But these kinds of tales of ancient adventures are what underlie and influence all the great science fiction stories, of course. I'd read (perhaps rather dry?) versions of the old myths before I was eleven, of course. If I could go back in time for real, I think I'd go back with this wonderful volume to 1981 and present it to myself. You need to know these stories well, I'd say...