"Everybody needs somebody to love"... That’s how the song goes. In fact, that particular suggestion is common to numerous melodies, in subtly different ways. Think about it. The image of being needed is central to virtually every love song in history. Yes, I know it’s still January, so this isn’t intended to be a Valentine. And the counterpoint of what I’ve just said (unfortunately) is that, when we don’t feel needed, valued or even respected, we can find ourselves in a very dark place indeed.
I speak from experience on both counts. Emotional encounters at each end of the scale have helped me to write better fiction. My critics might disagree, but I can certainly tell you how much any creative artist, writer or performer values positive feedback. “Feeling the love” is a huge boost to all of us, no matter what time of the year.
Let me qualify that.
One night many moons ago, while making my first naïve performance on stage, I was profoundly affected by hearing laughter from an audience, and then the warmth of their applause at the end of my “act”. It made me want to do more, and those occasions became addictive. I gave a performance, and received an appreciative reaction. A very simple demonstration of cause and effect.
Much more recently, something similar happened as a direct consequence of my first novel: I attended a local book club to talk about The Murder Tree, and afterwards a lady approached me in private. She told me a passage dealing with the loss of someone close had touched her emotionally, and reading how my character dealt with grief had helped her to see her own situation in a different light. That kind of feedback meant a lot to me.
I am normally a very private person, despite having a public image. The occasions when I post on this blog can be infrequent, partly because my writing also suffers from periods when I simply don’t feel up to stringing a sentence together. I have a history of depression (common with most creative people), and then there are times when life itself just gets in the way. But such an intruder can also hand out surprises: a lightbulb moment that sends me rushing back to the keyboard, or a pleasant encounter which effectively says “Yes, someone does love me, after all”.
Here's an instance for you: Every January, the British Library writes to published authors with a statement on the number of loans affecting their books in libraries throughout the UK. (We actually get paid a small amount per loan.) The period covered is July to June the previous year, so my latest Public Lending Right figures ended in June 2022, detailing the loans affecting The Murder Tree and its sequel The Titanic Document, published 1st October 2013 and 28th March 2021 respectively. The statement I received last year therefore only included the first three months since launching my last novel. It was hugely disappointing – not a single loan! This year? Fifty-eight. Much, much better, indicating more than one book out per week. Overall, that amount is still dwarfed by The Murder Tree, which had its best year ever. The PLR report tells me that even if sales might be lower than I’d like, there are still plenty of people out there supporting their libraries, and who actually like my books enough to read them. Now I can feel the love!
Here's the rub. Sitting in a theatre audience, it is easy to show your appreciation by putting your hands together. But when you read a book, how often do you tell the author you enjoyed their effort? Believe me when I say your honest appraisal is something every creative artist values.
As do I.
(When you’re as old as I am, you need a good laugh…)
There you go: not much of a gag, but something personal from me that (in a way) sums up my take on life. I like to look on the lighter side of humanity. I have never failed to put humour into my writing, even in my thrillers, because I believe that releasing tension is an effective process for any author, irrespective of genre. That comes from my experience as a reader, not as a writer. Slipping light relief between dramatic scenes is a common technique in the theatre too, as well as on screen. Look at Columbo. How many times have we watched Peter Falk play a scene for laughs as the scruffy policeman before we see him corner a murderer with the deftest of detection?
My very first attempts at writing were intended to make my peers laugh, as a gangling teenager trying to make himself more popular – especially with girls. Amateur dramatics followed soon after, once I’d discovered the heady experience of hearing a wave of laughter from an audience. They were vocalising their appreciation for something written and performed by me, even if it was only a silly sketch at a church concert. In that moment I was aware of the potential within me, and the reward of laughter.
At the time of writing, I’m about to celebrate my 70th birthday, and with that I can also mark fifty years of being involved in theatre. I am fortunate in having occasionally experienced professional (paid) work, including many leading roles as an actor. I’ve reached a period in my life where I can happily indulge in creative pursuits that often allow me a smile of content, knowing I have touched someone else in a positive way. The total number of books I sell matters little to me, nor how many listen to the recordings I put out through JAPE Productions. I know that, even after I’m gone, there is every possibility that something I wrote or performed will still have a beneficial effect on a person I never met. Just ONE is enough. Who knows what that individual may go on to do as a result?
Someone once said that everything we do has a consequence. We see that every day on the news. Politicians, religious leaders, celebrities – all bear responsibility for their actions on this fragile planet. I’m no saint either, but I’m also a parent and a grandparent. My legacy is already out there, giving me pride and joy, and a great many smiles. If you’ve read this far, I recommend you do whatever you can today to find something that brings a smile to your face – and then share it with as many others as possible.
Go on. We could all use a good laugh! (And it might just save the planet…)
One of the common reactions to my writing is “I don’t know what goes on in your brain” – usually from my wife! To be fair, she has a point.
How many of us really understand why our brains work the way they do? I always resort to the general principle that, when I was a child, I would listen to the radio and have my imagination inspired by programmes like “The Navy Lark” or “The Clitheroe Kid”. (You’ll need to have been born before 1960 to recognise those titles.) I consider my solitary childhood habit to be a valid reason for why (in my more senior years) I became a quiet observer, regularly to be found daydreaming.
I am therefore often inspired to write by a random thought coming into my head – say while walking my dog, or even ironing a shirt. Specifically, a recent example would be the source of a short story (THE QUIET ONE), where I imagined an old lady going to seek help from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau – only her needs would be prompted by something totally out of the ordinary. That is the essence of story-telling: there needs to be something to spark the reader’s interest. Why write about a woman asking for help to claim Universal Credit, when instead she could be wanting to dispose of her husband?
But then logic has to play its part. Enter that good old question: “Why?”
Why would an old lady, perhaps married for many years, want to get rid of her partner? (Please don’t put that thought into my wife’s head!) So, in constructing my plot, I had to provide the answer in a believable way – and that made me consider how my heroine’s mind could have been damaged, so that what might seem irrational to others would be perfectly reasonable to her. Now I had my short story, and while it makes for an entertaining read, it also demonstrates the real presence of dementia, and how it can affect any of us.
THE QUIET ONE was placed Third in a monthly competition run by Writers’ Forum magazine (July 2022 edition), and has now been dramatised by JAPE Productions for their series of podcasts. You can listen to it HERE.
Look at this photograph. What does it suggest to you?
Yes, it’s a tree by a river – but to my mind it is almost as if the tree is walking, possibly even climbing up the bank. The photographer has captured a moment that we all know couldn’t possibly be happening, and yet..? Most of us let our imaginations go into free-fall from time to time, and that’s no bad thing. As a creative writer, I’d say that sort of inspiration is pretty essential!
Any published author will be asked the question “Where do you get your ideas from?” So, while that curious-looking tree played no part in my fictional inspirations, I’m presenting this photo as a speculative example. If my theory is correct, what you’re looking at just might have helped create an iconic literary masterpiece.
Let’s cut to the chase: even if you are not a reader of fantasy fiction, the concept of “walking trees” may be familiar to you through another medium. How about Peter Jackson’s cinematic extravaganza from twenty years ago, The Lord of The Rings? Three films based on the fantasy novels of J R R Tolkien. This was the man who introduced us to a species of “tree-herds” called Ents, resembling trees in appearance, and taking a resilient pride in fostering ancient woodlands. One of these peculiar characters (Treebeard) played a major role in sheltering two of the Hobbits, and in rousing many of his kin to defeat the evil Orcs of Middle Earth.
So, what might have inspired the creation of Ents in Mr Tolkien’s fantasy world?
Here’s a little more background to the photo of that “walking tree”: I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of England known as the Ribble Valley. One tributary of the Ribble is the Hodder, and that is the river featured in the background, as I took that photo myself while walking on a day in early spring. This is another photo of the same tree in late summer, when the undergrowth has sprung up to disguise those leg-like roots.
That walk by the river is one which would have been familiar to Tolkien, who stayed at nearby Stonyhurst College while visiting his eldest son John, who was studying for a priesthood there during the Second World War. Tolkien was renowned for his love of nature and wooded landscapes, and was known to have written much of the first book in his fantasy trilogy (The Fellowship of The Ring) during his visits to the College. The footpath by that peculiar-shaped tree is now part of an official “Tolkien Trail” that encompasses both river and College. Treebeard and his fellow Ents did not appear until the second book (The Two Towers), so I leave it to you to judge if someone with a love of trees might not have done as I did while walking one late winter’s day. Perhaps John Tolkien alerted his father to this local curiosity, and imagination did the rest.
Isaac Newton wrote “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. Which, if you use your imagination a little, is an easy analogy for two Hobbits sitting high up in the foliage of a walking tree…
At the end of December last year, I shared an insight into a personal experience over Christmas. Suffice to say a lot of people enjoyed reading about my mother-in-law’s mishap with her skirt, so here’s another tale that may provoke a smile:
A few months ago, my wife and I were fortunate to buy a static caravan at a residential site in North Yorkshire. We delight in the tranquil setting, and enjoy exploring what is a relatively new part of the world to us. Yesterday we were taking in the high street of Northallerton, a bustling market town that sits midway between the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. It was just a casual visit, with no intention to purchase – or so I thought. As we passed one large store my wife glanced in the window and muttered “Just wait here a moment. Need to check something out.” So the dog and I stood outside the entrance for all of five minutes, curious to see what might emerge. Would this be my birthday surprise, I wondered? After shave? Snazzy socks? The new ABBA album?
No, it was none of those things. To my immense surprise, she reappeared clutching a large box that clearly contained an artificial Christmas tree. “What on earth..?” I started to say. “Don’t argue, Alan” she said. “We need a bigger one at home, and now we’ve got the caravan we can bring that little one here!”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my views on Christmas decs are fairly minimalist. A sprig of holly here. A twinkling set of fairy lights there, and I’m happy. Just so long as there’s plenty of grub in the fridge, which then works its way through the oven to sit proudly on my plate. Yes, I DID once play the part of Ebenezer Scrooge (to critical acclaim), but I wasn’t exactly embracing this idea of owning/storing a six-foot-tall plastic and wire ornament after successfully “downsizing” our efforts last year. It also didn’t help my being told I was expected to fund 50% of my wife’s latest impulse buy.
I grumbled a bit. Okay, I whinged a lot. To no avail. The box was duly persuaded to fit into our car, where it would await our journey home next morning.
My wife awoke looking a little troubled. “What’s up?” I enquired. “It’s that tree,” she said. “I need to have another look at it.” She went out to the car and brought the box in for examination, announcing to my surprise that she thought she might have done something silly. “I think I’ve only bought half a tree.”
“HALF?” was my stunned response. “How can you have only bought HALF a tree?” I looked at the box, a large white-frosted display of pine branches met my eyes. “Does it come in two parts, and you only picked up one?” “Look at the wording,” said my wife. I did. “6 ft Half Flocked Tree” it said. “Well, that probably means it’s only partially flocked – whatever that means?” That didn’t really help matters, so we opened the box. Sure enough, inside was half of a six-foot-tall tree – split right down the middle.
I have to have sympathy for my better half. A) She’ll never live this one down, and B) She had to take the damn thing back, to my utter delight.
Sadly, there’s a full-size replacement in the post…
There are as many ways to tell a story as there are varieties of coffee in Starbucks. I’ve written for the stage, and published in paper form, online and in e-format, while others use pictures (Instagram, Tik-Tok) or sound. (I say “others” because, while I’m a pretty keen amateur photographer, I don’t yet feature in a pictorial community of storytellers – although you can find me on Flickr.)
I was first introduced to the concept some years ago by a theatre colleague, who explained how this was a new thing from America, and was going to be very big in the UK. (How right they were.)
As a child I found my imagination fostered by entertainment on the radio, so I could relate to the idea of an audio facility exploiting the platform of the worldwide web. It’s now commonplace for many of us to “go online” for a regular part of our day, and if you’re reading this, you’ll know what I mean!
So, do YOU cast pods?
My own experience in that direction began over three years ago when, together with two actor friends, we formed JAPE Productions. I’d known Peter Franksson shared my interest in writing, and we both felt capable of performing our own stuff, assuming we could add a female voice: Jacqui Padden. The initial vehicle was THE RED ROSE TATTOO – live sketches performed radio-style – which naturally lent itself to being broadcast over the internet. The pandemic put a stop to our live shows, but the podcasts we subsequently created have never lost their appeal – or their audience.
The present project is DUMMY CABS. Peter originally wrote this as a stage play, but I saw its potential for adapting as an audio performance, or as a series for podcasting. It is beautifully written, a nod to Peter’s time working as a taxi driver in the Nineties, and the characters are drawn from life. I took on the task of tweaking the script to make it more suitable as a radio show, edited into five episodes. I am proud of the result, and particularly of the recording quality we achieved. Why not check it out yourself? Follow the link above or search “Dummy Cabs” on Spotify, Apple Music or your usual provider. While we have almost completed the present series at the time of writing, we are confident there will be more to follow.
Of course, the great thing about taxis is you can share the fare. So, if you like the ride (by podcast), please feel free to tell others how you got on. Or comment on this blog!
Have you joined?
I don’t know if it’s my generation, but as a kid I could be happily occupied for lengthy periods with a pencil and an image made from dots. They were sequentially numbered, so all you had to do was draw a line from 1 through 2, then to 3 and onwards – when a picture would miraculously appear on the page. Nothing spectacular, and hardly challenging (assuming you could recognise numbers), but presenting mum with a completed drawing vaguely resembling Donald Duck was a heck of a triumph to a childish mind.
I bring this juvenile pastime to your attention because I think we sometimes need reminding that “Everything Is Connected”.
We are currently beset by a worldwide pandemic that is making (some of) us aware of the value of good personal hygiene. We have been educated about “social distance”, and understand that breaking down boundaries risks a dangerous infection. (Which in my opinion makes a total mockery of keeping your friends close, and your enemies closer.)
Some connections are more important than others, and need sensitive handling. Take the UK Government (please) – leaders of an island nation with a fair old history of waging war between neighbours across the Channel – who recently tore up a political agreement/connection with those same neighbours and immediately began looking for more distant friends to cuddle up to. Fixing long-standing political feuds needs more than a shot in the arm. Personally, I’d go for a kick up the backside.
But now politics is “following the science”. We have vaccines, and suddenly being a scientist carries a lot more street cred. Connect that phrase to the other threat facing the world (Climate Change) and we await salvation from political leaders doing the unthinkable – uniting together behind a common policy to save the planet. Why? Because the scientists and Greta Thunberg tell us that is what we need to do.
I wasn’t into science at school. I never got beyond “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone”, and I dreaded visits to the dentist. But I knew when I was being told something important that could affect my health. So, I braved the nasty needles, and I brushed my teeth thoroughly, and I promised my mum I’d be a good boy when I went to the doctor’s surgery – so long as I could take a pencil and look at the comics in the waiting room. And find the pages inside with the puzzles.
And join the dots…
A golden rule for aircraft pilots is that take-offs are optional, while landings are mandatory. There’s a lot of stuff in the media just now about the holiday industry, and the impact from lists of various colours. Flights cancelled, holidays re-scheduled, governments under pressure to rescue economies while battling unprecedented statistics. Phew… let’s get away from it all.
Well, that’s what my wife and I did last month. We had a week in Madeira, safely on the UK “Green List”, and it only cost us an NHS double vaccine certificate and a free negative test while we were there. Yes, there was more to it, of course. We’d originally booked a year ago for December 2020, and postponed once to July. Then there was the online locator form paperwork and the Day 2 test on return, but at least we got away to warm sunshine while the UK began a heatwave…
The point of this preamble is to highlight something common to us all: facing up to scary situations might put unwanted pressure on our bladders – but the effort is often worthwhile.
Take our trip to Madeira.
We lost the first 24 hours due to wind: apparently it was considered too dangerous to attempt a landing. A day later, watching as our pilot banked sharply close to some impossibly high cliffs, we could understand why. It takes a strong nerve to put an aircraft full of several hundred people down safely onto that narrow ledge of tarmac. (See above about mandatory landings.)
It was my first visit to this tropical island, and one of the attractions for me was to scale the heights by cable car and sample a tourist attraction unique to Madeira: street tobogganing. This involves sitting in a tiny wicker basket fixed on wooden runners, and being pushed downhill by a couple of burly guys through narrow streets so steep, if you parked your car sideways it’d roll over. Bearing in mind my wife occasionally suffers from vertigo, this seemed like a big ask. But she placed her trust in me and took the plunge. She loved it!
Maybe the prospect of having a needle put in your arm feels too daunting, or perhaps you’re struggling to rebuild your life in some way after a personal loss. The paths we face in life can be intimidating in the short term. But take the longer view, step back a little and remember if you can what it felt like to be a child on a sledge in the snow. Once you reached the bottom of that slope, you immediately wanted to climb back to the top – and do it all over again.
There you go. Didn’t that feel good?
There are fringe benefits to writing about true mysteries. Sometimes you find you can actually touch them in some way. This was particularly the case with my first novel The Murder Tree, when I imagined what it might be like for someone from the present day to discover their personal connection to someone involved in a historic murder. It was hugely satisfying for me to be approached by one lady who read the book and realised not one but two of her ancestors had been closely involved with the nineteenth century crime! Karen Clarke has since explored her family tree more closely, and fed me with some snippets of historical information that add to my own interest in the story of Jessie McLachlan.
I’m not sure that The Titanic Document will follow a similar pattern, but already one reader has supplied a curiously personal anecdote that ties in with my observation of events from 1912. Jenny Edwards tells me that one of her distant relations is in her late 90s and still lives independently somewhere in the south of England. It appears she too had experience of a historical figure who features strongly in the Titanic part of my novel: She and her siblings were dumped in an orphanage by their father after their mother died. Upon leaving the orphanage, she went into service and got a job as a chambermaid in the House of Commons. Following this she obtained a new placement as a parlour maid, still in London, to a family in Mayfair I believe. She told me, and I quote "They had already been ostracised by London society. Their name was Ismay".
Joseph Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line that owned Titanic, escaped any blame at the British Inquiry, but his standing in London society was severely damaged. He did indeed live in Mayfair until his death in 1937 at the age of 74, leaving behind his wife and five children. If my assumptions of his part in the 1912 disaster are correct, together with his conduct during the Inquiry, it is hardly surprising that the family felt ostracised. Imagine the private conversations that would have been witnessed by that parlour maid… Now there’s another story!
Look at this photo. Recognise the subject? Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” is one of the most famous paintings on the planet, so I’d be surprised if your answer was “no”. This is the original, hanging in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I know that because I took the photo myself, and a quick check online will confirm that is where the painting presently hangs. Fact.
Or is it?
We live in a sophisticated world. Our resources seem infinite, with freedom to gather information from books, magazines, newspapers and TV, or through the worldwide web. You can even speak to someone in person. Like me. I’ve been to the Uffizi Gallery and seen it with my own eyes, so that HAS to be the original fifteenth century painting on display, doesn’t it? But then, what would I know? I could only tell you what I have been told. And that information could have been false. I have no reason to doubt the claims of staff at the Uffizi, but how do we KNOW that what is on display is not a clever fake? Could the original instead be adorning the wall of some private collector, having previously been stolen to order – with the Gallery too embarrassed to admit a deception had taken place?
If that sounds more like a plot for a novel, forgive me. Such ideas are not new, and I have no intention of starting such a project. My point is simply to illustrate that most of us tend to accept what we are told at face value.
Right now, our world is suffering from the ongoing effects of a pandemic. Misinformation is rife, and lives are being lost as a result. Climate change is also a hot topic, with vast numbers of us under threat if our world leaders don’t agree on how to tackle it. But then those leaders are listening to their political advisers as well as to scientists – and again there are huge disagreements over “the facts”.
Here in the UK, many of us have been enjoying a TV drama aptly titled “Line of Duty”. The subject is anti-corruption among police officers, although the developing storyline also implicates political figures. In the real world, as I write this, the media are speculating on the potential fallout for the Prime Minister if he is found to have lied about money spent on his Downing Street apartment. Local elections are imminent, the Electoral Commission are investigating, and we are left in no doubt that there are serious questions to be answered about the PM’s behaviour. Fiction and fact – both painting a picture of lies and misrepresentation.
The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, today supplied a quote from a former minister once close to Boris Johnson: “The PM treats facts like he treats all his relationships – utterly disposable once inconvenient. It’s all about power. Facts, policies, people – they all get ditched if they get in the way.” It is easy to be cynical about what we read online, or watch on the television news. But when we are asked to elect someone based on the promises they make, we do need to consider whether we are happy to put our livelihoods in their hands. Does it make a difference if we are being lied to?
Politics aside, I believe a little scepticism is a healthy thing. Taking information at face value, on the other hand, can be risky. We’re all in the Gallery. Do we believe our own eyes? Or are we happy to accept what’s in front of us because it LOOKS like the real thing?
To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Happiness is just an illusion caused by the temporary absence of reality.”
Need to know:
(I don’t just write fiction.