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Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – Review



My Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars


I can’t remember when I last read a book that I devoured so avidly – especially a book that’s not a genre thriller or whodunit (at least not in the classical sense). Borrowed from the library, started and finished in the space of a few hours.

It’s a book that mystifies, explains, uplifts and depresses, all at the same time. Told through the eyes of someone who is clearly not in the same world (physically and mentally) as the rest of humanity, it’s obvious that there is something very strange happening.

As “Piranesi” (not his real name) finds out more about his reality, we readers realise that what appeared to be errors in the continuity and credibility of the narration are in fact clues to the situation which we should have picked up, but we are so caught up in the wonder of Piranesi’s world and of his mind that we don’t bother questioning them as deeply as we might.

Not the overpowering tour de force that was Strange and Norrell, but a masterpiece on a far more constrained and miniature scale.

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How do I write pastiches?

Pastiches? Homages? Rip-offs? Or simply imitations (“the sincerest form of flattery” according to Oscar Wilde)?
I’ve written quite a few of these, taking on the mantle of four authors in my time: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), William Hope Hodgson (Carnacki the Ghost-Finder), G.K.Chesterton (Father Brown), and latterly E.F.Benson (Mapp and Lucia). All of these have been well-received.

In these stories, I have always tried to maintain the style of the original authors as far as possible. This is more than a matter of recycling stock phrases (“You know my methods, Watson”, “tarsome”, etc.). Each of these authors has an individual style, even though in many cases their periods of activity overlapped with each other – there is much more to this pastiche business than simply copying the mannerisms of a bygone age’s language.

“After the initial chalk circle and pentacle, strengthened with garlic, the Electric Pentacle was obviously the first line of my defences to be established, and I welcomed the glow from its wards once I had assembled it. I performed the the Second Sign of the Saaamaaa Ritual at each vertex, though if matters were as I suspected, and that the beings reportedly described in the lost Heptatrych of Laskaria were involved, the Ritual would have little or no effect. My faith lay in the Pentacle, along with the linen-wrapped bread placed in the ‘Points’ and the water placed in the ‘Vales’, and I determined to spend the night inside that, provided, that is, that there was no clear natural cause for any untoward event.

From my “Carnacki at Bunscombe Abbey”

However well I think I have done with the style, though, when I look back at examples of the originals, I find that I have invariably missed something – at least to my eyes. There is always some element of subtlety that I seem to miss out when writing my pastiches. Even so, the majority of readers seem to think that I have captured the spirit of the originals. I like to think that no one could ever use Monet’s paintings of Rouen Cathedral as architectural blueprints, but they are unmistakably paintings of that particular building, in the same way that my writing is an impression of the writer whose work I am imitating. Incidentally, the hardest style of all to imitate has been Chesterton’s – he loves his little paradoxes and slices of religion to be slipped in. Very difficult to do.

“He is not a Catholic, then?”
She sighed. “He is nothing,” she said. “That is to say, he claims that he cannot prove that God exists, or that He does not. Therefore, he mocks both those with faith, and those who deny faith. Though he is a most efficient and useful addition to the household, and of great assistance in Uncle Archie’s work, I – we – feared that my uncle would give him his notice if he were to continue in this fashion. It upset my uncle considerably.”
“And yet you tell me that you love him?” asked Father Brown kindly.
“I do. I have faith – faith that I can bring him to belief and into the bosom of the Church. I pray every night for him to believe.”
This interesting conversation (interesting, that is, to the young lady at least, since Father Brown had heard that story, or one very similar to it, many times in his time as a priest) was interrupted by the entry of the young man in question.

From my “The Persian Dagger”

Characters are another matter. How far does one take liberties with the character? I like to think (and many critics have agreed with me) that my Holmes and Watson expand on the originals without changing their basic characteristics. I am not, for instance, going to make Holmes and Watson jump into bed with each other, but at the same time, I feel free to make more of the genuine affection that they feel for each other. The same applies to Mapp and Lucia and the inhabitants of Tilling. The characters are loved because of who they are, and any fundamental change to them would make them different people. They may grow and develop, but any outright change to their personalities would turn them into different people. I loved writing Mrs Weston in Riseholme – her streams of consciousness are a delight to write:

“Well, I really don’t know,” she said, after inspecting Georgie’s pieces of glass and invited to guess where he had found them. “I do declare that is just like the handle of a jug that Mr Weston used to have, which he inherited from his aunt, the one who used to live in Hastings and who married the man who invented a new kind of safety-valve to go on railway engines, and which he broke one afternoon after he came in from playing golf with the Vicar. I remember that he went round in 83 strokes, and the Vicar went round in 82, but he said the Vicar had cheated by moving his ball out of a bunker when he thought no one was looking.” She inspected Georgie’s treasure trove a little more closely. “I was just talking about this last week with Colonel Boucher when he was coming out of Rush’s and he had ordered half a pound of currants because Rush said he had no raisins, and why he had no raisins I couldn’t say if you begged me to tell you because he had some two weeks ago and Cook made a very nice pudding out of them. I couldn’t eat it all, and Cook and Elizabeth said they were the best raisins they had ever eaten in a pudding. And the Colonel said he had played golf and lost by one stroke and that put me in mind of that day and it was also the day the German Emperor made a speech about something which annoyed the Prime Minister and that was the very same day that Mr Weston broke the jug.” She paused for breath. “And how you ever got hold of that handle I don’t know, because I remember giving it to Elizabeth to throw away. ‘Wrap it up well,’ I said to her, ‘because someone might cut their hand on it and die of blood-poisoning like old Mr Marlowe who cut his thumb when he was raking the flowerbed in his front garden and he got blood-poisoning and died two– no, three weeks later, and then we’d get the blame.’ So what she did with it, I couldn’t tell you, but I haven’t seen it from that day to this when you showed it to me just now and I really have no idea where you might have found it.”

From my “La Lucia”

And then there are plots and settings. When you are writing a pastiche, you are writing for fans of the originals. If I slip up and put Mr Twistevant behind the counter of the fish-shop, or have Holmes and Watson take the London Underground Victoria Line, I would be rightly laughed out of court. Research and reference to the originals for facts and settings. And plots cannot be too outrageous (though in all the instances I have mentioned, the plots are pretty outrageous to start with) – they must be in scale with the settings of the piece. It is not impossible that the Prince of Wales, for example, sits on Mallards doorstep and smokes a cigarette. It is, however, most unlikely that he would ring dear Liblib’s belly-pelly and ask to be invited in for a cup of tea.

So, the brief answer to “how do I write pastiches” is, “I write stories that the original author didn’t have time to write”. I like to think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might well have written:

As a doctor, I am sworn to protect the life of others. As a human being, I am obviously anxious to protect my own life. And as a friend of Sherlock Holmes, I was never more determined to protect his well-being than at that moment. I fired my revolver, and the wretch dropped his weapon, clutching at his arm with a sharp cry.

From my “The Adventure of the Vatican Cameos”

25% off all books! (opening sale)

Lello bookstore, Portugal

Well, I’m a few months late to the party, but it  seems that Amazon has finally admitted that there is a life outside Kindle!

It’s now apparently possible to load EPUBs onto your Kindle through Amazon’s discomobulator which turns them into Amazon’s proprietary format. In fact, the Amazon ebook publishing service gave up accepting DOCs and DOCXs some time ago, and now only accepts EPUBs. I’m guessing that technology has now made it over to the consumer side of Amazon, having had the suppliers as beta testers to iron out the bugs. Here’s how you do it!

What this means for readers is that there is a vast sea of public-domain and other titles out there which are now available for reading on Amazon devices.

And for me and other authors who do their own production and sales, it means that there’s only one file that needs to go up on ebook sales pages.

So now having set up a shiny new shop, courtesy of Payhip, where my books were neatly arranged as both EPUB and MOBI, I find I really needn’t have bothered. [UPDATE – I simplified everyone’s life by only offering the EPUB]

Anyway, take a look at the store, poke around, kick the tyres, buy something if you want something to read, and get a 25% discount on everything using the coupon code 1B57WFAEZI (valid until 17 September 2022). And give me some feedback on things you liked, and things you didn’t like about it.

Another Mapp and Lucia fan

We’ve recently had a Waterstones bookshop open in our “city of philosophers” (Lichfield), and they kicked off what we all hope is going to be a series of book events with a signing by the Reverend Richard Coles of his mystery novel Murder Before Evensong.

Since he had been on Celebrity Mastermind with a specialist subject of the Mapp and Lucia novels, which had also been my Mastermind specialist subject in the first round, it seemed we might have something in common (we’d both played in bands in our more youthful days, though he is a much better musician than me, and had far greater success with The Communards than I did with Ersatz..

So I decided to take along two of my own Mapp and Lucia pastiches, Mapp at Fifty, and the very exclusive Captain Puffin Comes to Tilling (not available on Amazon – special edition printed for the Gathering of the Friends of Tilling last year).

Also a copy of On the Other Side of the Sky for his bedside reading.

As it happened, there were far more people at the event than I had expected. At 12:32 (start of event scheduled for 12:30) the shop had sold out of Murder Before Evensong, so I bought a couple of the Rev Coles’s non-fictions, and joined the 40–50-strong queue.

When my time came, we actually managed to have a little chat, and I’d pre-signed one of his books with Major Benjy’s favourite shout of “Quai Hai!” and he did the same for me.

So a good time was had by all.

The Reverend Richard Coles and me at Waterstones Lichfield, with some of my books.

The Bomber Mafia – Malcom Gladwell — REVIEW

I read a lot of history for fun. I’m interested in how we fight – what we fight with, and how we use these weapons, even though I am really a pacifist at heart. I’m especially interested in aeroplanes (airplanes to some of the world), and have been even more so since I took up scale modelling again during lockdown (current build is a 1/48 MiG-21MF (“Fishbed”) in Bundeswehr livery following German reunification).

So, when I saw Gladwell’s “Bomber Mafia” offered for sale, I actually bought a copy (we have a Waterstones in Lichfield at last!). I was disappointed. I’m not an expert in bombing tactics or strategy, but I flatter myself that I know more than the average bear.

So to read a book about “the bomber will always get through” without a mention of Douhet or Balbo and only a passing reference to Billy Mitchell seemed to me to be extraordinary. Instead, emphasis is placed on a small group of US Army aviators who are reported to have a belief in the ability of a small force of aircraft (even single plane) to perform precision bombing on a logistical Schwerpunkt such as a ball-bearing factory, thereby saving the lives of thousands by a surgical strike.

In this, the aviators would be aided by the Norden bombsight, designed by an eccentric monomaniac, described in loving detail in this book, which in theory would allow the placement of a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet. In practice, of course, this proved completely unworkable. Winds, vibration, the difficulty of mass-producing a precision device, and human factors made it impossible to achieve this laudable goal (laudable because it would reduce the number of casualties needed to achieve a definitive war-winning result.

The British, of course, under “Bomber” Harris, scoffed at this utopian vision of warfare, and carpet-bombed German cities at night, when precision bombing was impossible. They looked at the American Schweinfurt-Regensburg raids which cost the USAAF over 60 planes and 500 men, while having results which were less than conclusive at best and wondered what the “Yanks” were playing at.

Curtis LeMay, a less than idealistic USAAF general, once he had been transferred to the Pacific theatre from Europe, decided that the best way to use the US military’s latest and most expensive project, the B-29 Superfortress, was to bomb the inflammable wood, straw and paper Japanese civilian cities with the newly invented napalm incendiaries which spilled sticky liquid fire over everything and everyone. They even built Japanese style urban dwellings to test the effectiveness of napalm.

Eventually, thanks to the discovery of the jet stream at the projected operating altitude of the B-29, these massive aircraft were sent night after night at low level to burn Japanese cities – and thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians – indiscriminately to the ground.

But ultimately, the book somewhat underplays the horror of these mass killings, other than to describe them in American terms. The planes were so filled with the stench of burned human beings that they had to be disinfected after the missions.

And yet they continued, even after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. As a professor of history recently said in a conversation with me about this book, one problem is “the pigheaded belief that if it was Americans committing the atrocities, that somehow meant they weren’t “atrocities””. Actually, LeMay is reported to have said that if the Allies lost the war against Japan, he would be tried and hanged as a war criminal. He was fully aware of the fact that he was burning thousands to death, and however much the Japanese were depersonalised as “yellow monkeys” and the like, he was aware of the crimes he was committing. No wonder he was satirised in Dr Strangelove as General Jack D. Ripper.

To me, the book started with a reasonable idea – the story of the precision bombing, but it was full of facts which are disputable (for example, in 1936, were variable-pitch airscrews really standard? Spitfires and Hurricanes didn’t get them until 1941). And the emphasis was on the wrong people in my opinion: Norden and Lindemann (Lord Cherwell) as examples. Not a recommended book if you know anything about WWII air power and strategy.

Where does your detective work?

photo of vintage furnitures

I’ve been recently encouraged to write a story featuring G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Though both are British detectives, and can be seen as occupying almost the same space and time (England, especially London, in the early 20th century), there is a marked difference in their surroundings.

Sherlock Holmes’s London is one of mean streets, when it is not one of high society. We can imagine ourselves alongside Holmes as he treads through the dark stinking alleys of the East End, or examines the fibres of a bell-pull in a drawing-room.

G.K.Chesterton’s London (and indeed his England) has more of a fantastical quality to it. These are to passages which have stuck in my memory since I first read them. First, London.

The sense of something tiny and flying was accentuated as they swept up long white curves of road in the dead but open daylight of evening. Soon the white curves came sharper and dizzier; they were upon ascending spirals, as they say in the modern religions. For, indeed, they were cresting a corner of London which is almost as precipitous as Edinburgh, if not quite so picturesque. Terrace rose above terrace, and the special tower of flats they sought, rose above them all to almost Egyptian height, gilt by the level sunset. The change, as they turned the corner and entered the crescent known as Himylaya Mansions, was as abrupt as the opening of a window; for they found that pile of flats sitting above London as above a green sea of slate.

The Invisible Man

And here we are in the Norfolk Broads of Father Brown:

They pushed slowly up the brightening river; the glowing violet of the sky and the pale gold of the moon grew fainter and fainter, and faded into that vast colourless cosmos that precedes the colours of the dawn. When the first faint stripes of red and gold and grey split the horizon from end to end they were broken by the black bulk of a town or village which sat on the river just ahead of them. It was already an easy twilight, in which all things were visible, when they came under the hanging roofs and bridges of this riverside hamlet. The houses, with their long, low, stooping roofs, seemed to come down to drink at the river, like huge grey and red cattle. The broadening and whitening dawn had already turned to working daylight before they saw any living creature on the wharves and bridges of that silent town.

The Sins of Prince Saradine

I have chosen to attempt to place my story immediately following the Great War. We may assume that Holmes, though considerably older than the man who wrestled with Professor Moriarty above the Reichenbach Falls, is still active as a detective, and that his faithful Watson, greying, if not grey, is still with him. The London I have chosen is closer to G.K.Chesterton’s, because I am writing my story in a Chestertonian style. Even though Father Brown is indeed a parish priest, close to his East London flock and their very human privations, his surroundings are never coloured in with the gritty realism that permeates Holmes’s London.

I like this period of the early 1920s, because I feel it is a time of great change, socially, and indeed morally. The chaos that resulted from the double whammy of the Great War and the flu pandemic is a very fruitful ground for a psychological drama. Here’s how I have begun the story:

It was in that period immediately following the Great War that the events related here took place – that time of moral doubt and uncertainty that followed the great bloodletting of the nations, itself succeeded by a virulent plague that rivalled those experienced by Egypt at the time of the Exodus. Men’s souls and consciences were sorely tried, and ancient beliefs and practices that had remained dormant stirred once again, and rose to the surface to challenge the beliefs that had been held for so long.

from my forthcoming Father Brown Confronts the Devil

Overdoing it

depth photography of blue and white medication pill

This came to me in the wee small hours of this morning, almost fully-formed. We’ve just returned from a hotel holiday by the sea, and I’ve had a medical diagnosis which has been worrying. I think that many people when they are ill take advantage of their illness, consciously or not, and I wondered what it would be like if a naturally lazy and self-indulgent man became even more entrenched in his ways as a result of a vague medical condition.


“Shall we walk to Underdowne Sands today?” Jill said, taking another slice of toast and covering it with butter before sliding it under her fried egg, placing a rasher of bacon on top, and cutting off a less than delicate corner before conveying it to her mouth.
Her brother shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “How far is it? You know what the doctor said to me about overdoing things.” He stared resentfully at the untouched solitary poached egg that adorned his plate.
“I looked it up last night,” Jill said. “Three and a half miles along the cliff path. Or a little less if you go along the beach, and the beach would be flatter.”
“I’m sure that an hour’s walk wouldn’t be bad for you,” his wife, Lucy, told him. “I know Doctor Williams said that you shouldn’t overdo things, but he also said that you should get a bit of exercise. We’ll take it easy, and you can stop and take a rest whenever you need.”
“And there’s a café just outside Underdowne village which is meant to be really good,” Jill said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Oh, very well,” Jack said.
The fourth member of the party, Alice, sat silently, eating her grilled tomato and mushrooms. She never said much anyway, so it was difficult for the others to know what she was thinking. As the unmarried sister of Jill’s late husband, Bob, she was invariably included as part of Jack and Jill’s family events, but there always seemed to be more than a whiff of condescending charity about the invitations.
Jack attacked his egg. He’d had a bad scare when he’d visited the doctor a couple of months previously with a mysterious pain less than a year after retiring from his job in the insurance company. He’d been relieved when the tests had showed that it wasn’t cancer, but even so, it seemed that something strange was going on inside him, and as he often reminded the others, he’d been warned not to “overdo things”.
If truth be told, Jack rather enjoyed being treated as an invalid. Lucy had always spoiled him a little anyway, fussing over him, making sure he was comfortable and that everything was the way he wanted it to be. He wasn’t ungrateful about that – far from it – but the doctor’s diagnosis had brought a new level of solicitude and care into his life. There was even a thrill, if he admitted it to himself, of danger – living close to the edge – which had never been a part of his previous existence.
Added to his natural hypochondria, which had seen him take to his bed on more occasions than many would have considered necessary, this change to his medical condition suited him very well indeed, thank you.
He was lucky, he thought to himself, chasing the remains of the egg yolk around the plate with a corner of dry toast from which his wife had thoughtfully and wordlessly removed the crusts, with Lucy. And with Jill, as well. Some people seemed unable to appreciate their brothers and sisters, but Jill and he had always got on fine, and had been proud of the other’s achievements at school, college, and work, and had divided the chores associated with looking after their elderly parents equally between them. There was an unspoken agreement between James and Gillian (who had been “Jack” and “Jill” almost since they were born) that they were good for each other.


Half an hour later, the party of four assembled on the steps of the hotel, with the three women wearing sensible shoes and thin sweaters. Jack was dressed as if for an assault on an Antarctic mountain.
Jill laughed at the sight. “Jack! You’re going to roast in that lot. We’re going for a stroll along the beach in England in July, not hunting polar bears or penguins or something.”
“I told him,” Lucy said to her. “But he wouldn’t listen.” But there was no malice in the words, almost a quiet pride in Jack’s stubbornness.
“I can always take something off,” Jack answered her. “And if any of you ladies get cold, as I’m sure you will, that’s exactly what I’ll end up doing, lending you my coat and sweater.”
“Oh, don’t be so silly,” his sister told him. “Off we go.”
She strode off, swinging the Alpine walking sticks that Jack and Lucy had given her for her birthday some years ago. The others followed in her wake.
They reached the beach to discover that the tide was in and they would have to find a path through the rocks and boulders above the high water mark, rather than on the firm sand that would have been exposed at low tide.
“This isn’t easy,” Lucy said, after a few minutes.
“It’s not,” Jack agreed. “I think this comes into the category of overdoing it.”
“Wait for poor Alice,” Lucy said. Her sister-in-law was some hundred yards behind them, making slow progress as she picked her way between the rocks. “I’ll go and fetch her.”
Jack perched on the edge of a large rock and caught his breath. “I’m not sure this is such a good idea,” he said.
“Well, there’s always the cliff path,” Jill replied, pointing upwards.
Jack groaned. “I’m not sure I can make it up there.”
“Of course you can. You lead and set the pace, then we’ll be sure we won’t be going too fast for you. Here, have one of my sticks.”
As she passed the stick over to him, Lucy and Alice joined them.
“Sorry,” said Alice. “I was looking at some of the plants growing on the rocks back there.” She was looking flushed and was breathing quite heavily.
“I didn’t mean to rush you, Alice,” Lucy said to her. “Sorry if I made you catch up a bit fast.”
“Oh, it’s all right. Just not very used to walking on stones like this. It’s a bit different from Edgbaston, isn’t it?”
“Will you be all right if we go up the cliff path?” Jill asked her. “It will be a bit longer, but I think the views will be lovely once we get up there. Jack will lead, so we don’t go too fast for him.”
“I think I can manage that,” Alice told her. “I’m ready to go on. Sorry, everybody.”
Jack strode off. Not too fast, he told himself. Remember what the doctor said about not overdoing things. With the staff in his hand, and the three women following him, he felt almost mythic. A sort of tribal leader, guiding his people. So, his body might be weak, but he had a mighty spirit, didn’t he? He breathed in the sea air as he started to climb the cliff path. It wasn’t too bad, actually. The path was clearly marked and quite smooth. There were even handrails in places. He strode on, the staff digging into the chalky soil as he climbed.
He started to hum wordlessly to himself, and suddenly recognised the tune. “Onward Christian Soldiers” – now where had that come from? He hadn’t been in a church since… since his brother-in-law Bob’s funeral, and he couldn’t remember that they’d sung that then.
“Are you all right?” Lucy’s voice came from behind him. “Need to rest?”
“I’m fine,” he said, stopping, “but it might be nice to have a bit of a breather. Did you bring the water bottle? I’m a bit dry.”
“Take off that thick jacket, then,” suggested Lucy. “I’ll carry it for you.”
“Thanks.” He shrugged his way out of the expensive insulated breathable windproof waterproof jacket that he’d bought specially for this trip.
“What a view!” Jill exclaimed, looking out over the bay. It really was wonderful, Jack had to agree. The sun was starting to burn through the mist, and the windows of the town below were shining in the sun.
“Where’s Alice?” Lucy asked.
“Here I am,” came a small voice from the path below them. “Sorry again, everybody.” Alice’s little round red face appeared from behind a gorse bush. “I just had to catch my breath a bit.”
“Oh dear, are you all right?”
“I’m fine now.”
“Do you want to rest a little more before we set off again?”
“I’m OK, really.”
Jack felt a little aggrieved. After all, it was he who had been told to not overdo things and to watch his health.
Almost angrily, he set off up the track with deliberate strides, going a little faster than before. By the time he had reached the top of the cliff, he was blowing hard, and felt the need to sit down.
Lucy caught up with him a minute or so later. “Are you all right, dear?” she asked, with obvious concern in her voice.
“I’ll be okay,” he replied in a martyred tone. “Just a bit winded, that’s all. Did you remember to bring those pink pills with you?”
“I’ve got all your medicines with me in my bag,” his wife told him. “I know you never remember to bring them with you when we go out. Here you are.”
“Water,” he demanded, putting the tablet in his mouth.
“Here.”
“Thank you.” He might be unwell, but that was no reason to be ungracious, he said to himself.
Alice and Jill appeared at the top after a while.
“The view’s even better from up here,” Alice said, looking around. To Jack’s relief, she seemed to have recovered completely from whatever it was which had affected her earlier.
“You’re looking better,” Lucy told her.
“Second wind,” Alice said. “Anyone want a bit?” holding out a bar of Kendal mint cake.
“Lovely, thank you,” said Jill, taking a piece.
“Thank you, Alice,” said Jill.
“I’d better not,” said Jack, “after what the doctor told me about eating too much sugar. Especially if we’re going to have a cake or something when we get to that café you were talking about.” Time for him to reassert his place as the invalid of the party now that Alice seemed to have recovered. “Just give me a couple more minutes before we set off again.”
“Take as long as you need,” Alice said to him.
The cheek of it! After waiting for her to catch up, three times now, she was the one who was telling him to rest. “Perhaps you’d like to go in front?” he suggested, more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“No, it’s best if you lead,” she said.
At least there was that. He heaved himself to his feet, with Lucy giving him a hand, and set off along the cliff path. The sun was shining now, and even without his jacket, which Lucy was carrying for him, he was still too warm, but he decided to say nothing, although the sweat was now running down his face.
“You’re looking very hot, dear,” Lucy said to him when he paused and looked back at his followers. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. How much further?” he asked Jill, who was looking at the map on her phone.
“Another mile or so to the village. The café’s a few hundred yards inland from the rest of the village. Perhaps another thirty minutes. Can you manage?”
“Of course I can,” he replied indignantly. But despite the indignation, it was nice, he told himself, to be treated as the member of the party who needed the care and attention of the others. This was the compensation for being an invalid. Almost made it worthwhile.
He started to hum to himself again, and to his surprise heard Alice’s voice singing along.
“Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the church of God.
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.”

“Where did you learn that, Alice?” Jill asked, laughing.
“At the Diocesan Synod,” Alice said. “From one of the assistant bishops, actually.”
“I never knew bishops had that sort of sense of humour.”
“You’d be surprised,” Alice told her.
They reached the village. A bowl of muesli with plain yoghurt, one poached egg and a slice of dry toast seemed a long time ago, and a cup of decent coffee and a slice of cake sounded like a wonderful idea.
The café, which was only a few hundred yards up the road from the village, was appropriately Olde Worlde. There was a table in the garden, pleasantly shaded by a fig tree, and the waitress took their orders for two lattes (Jill and Alice), a cappuccino (Lucy), and an americano (Jack, reluctantly) and cakes.
While they were waiting for their order, “Just look at those roses,” Lucy said, admiringly. She had a passion for roses. The flowerbeds in the garden at home were filled with them. She got up, and Jill joined her as they walked over to the flowerbed.
“I’ll stay here and wait for them to bring the order,” Alice said. “Don’t be too long, or the coffee will get cold.”
Jack said nothing, but closed his eyes. He felt weary. He seemed to become tired and want to sleep more than he ever had done before the diagnosis. Slowing down, he told himself. Perfectly natural. But it was very nice to be able to do nothing, and for the illness, whatever it might be, to take responsibility for it.
A slight clinking of china and silverware told him that the drinks had arrived, and he heard Alice’s voice explaining which coffee and which cake went where. No need for him to open his eyes. He drifted away, listening to the sound of the bees in the lavender, a pigeon cooing somewhere close by, and a tractor somewhere in the distance… Thanks to the tablets he’d taken earlier in the day, he felt no pain…


He was woken by Lucy shaking him and shouting at him, “Wake up, you lazy lump!” There was a hysterical scream which he recognised as Jill’s voice.
Lazy? Him? Lazy? Why, he’d led them on this morning’s trek, hadn’t he? Lucy never used that sort of language to him. He opened his eyes. Lucy was standing in front of him.
“What’s the matter? If the coffee’s gone cold, we could get another one.”
“Look!” Jill shrieked at him. Lucy moved to one side. He could now see the waitress who had taken their order, bending over Alice, who was slumped over the table, her face half-buried in the slice of chocolate cake in front of her. “She’s dying, you fat fool!” his sister said. “And you just sat there and did nothing!”
“I… I…” He stopped. “Dying?”
“There’s a very weak irregular pulse, said the waitress. “I was a nurse, and I know what I’m looking for. I’m so sorry. I’ve called 999 but God only knows how long it will take for them to get here from the town. I’m so sorry,” she repeated.
“Did you really not notice anything?” his sister asked Jack. “You really are bloody useless, aren’t you?”
“I was asleep, I suppose. You know how easily I get tired with this condition and all.”
He felt a strong resentment against Alice. He had been supposed to be the invalid, not her. With a sudden stab of self-knowledge, he realised he’d never be able to rely on Lucy, or Jill for that matter, to sympathise with him again.
“Sorry,” he said, but if his apology was heard, it went un-noted.
There was a hostile silence as the women raised Alice back in her chair. The waitress disappeared and returned with a bowl and a damp cloth which she used to wipe Alice’s face gently. The bees still hummed, and the pigeon still cooed, but the sound of the tractor had been replaced by the distant sound of an approaching ambulance siren. Other than that, the brittle silence prevailed.
At length, the ambulance arrived, and the paramedics skilfully bundled Alice onto the stretcher. “We’ll give her oxygen,” one of them told Jill. “There’s an excellent chance of her survival, I’d say.”
“We’re going to the hospital,” Lucy told Jack, “Jill and me.”
“And me?”
“You’re going back to the hotel.”
“Walking? In my cond—” He broke off. His trump card had been out-trumped.
“Yes. Walking. Here’s your coat. And your bloody pills. And your water bottle. And all of your other crap I’ve been carrying for you.”
And with that, they were off in the ambulance.
And just when he thought it couldn’t get any worse…
“I know you didn’t drink your coffees and eat the cakes, and of course I’m terribly sorry about what happened to your friend, but I really do have to ask you to pay for them.”
It was the last straw. Lucy was the one who carried their money. He tried to explain, and ended up breaking down. Life was just so unfair.


Sadly, I do recognise some of myself in Jack – but I’m not that bad. Honestly.

Nostalgia – a British disease?

There seems to have been a lot of this sort of thing recently on Twitter, etc.

You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled-up newspaper in a septic tank. We used to have to get up every morning at 6 o’clock and clean the newspaper, go to work down t’ mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep with his belt.

“The Four Yorkshiremen” sketch – Monty Python

We have a cost-of-living crisis in this country. Energy (gas and electricity) prices have soared to unimaginable levels. Food in the shops has become more expensive. Petrol prices have gone up, meaning that everything costs more. Many now have the choice between eating and heating – it’s not possible to afford both.

And yet, there are still those on Twitter who are saying that living in an unheated house with inadequate sanitation etc. “never did me any harm”. Actually, while it may not have done the writers of these tweets any harm, the average life expectancy has gone up by about 10 years. If the standard of living had been as high then as it is now, they might have enjoyed their grandparents’ or parents’ company for ten years more. The “good old days” were not all good. But let’s not argue about the causes and remedies of this present disaster. This is a symptom of a more general condition – instant nostalgia, and in many cases, I think it’s a peculiarly British phenomenon.

I recently went into a Waterstones nearby (The Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, if you want to know) to promote my latest, On the Other Side of the Sky, and see if they would (a) take a copy or two, and (b) agree to a book event.

As it turned out, I ended up talking to a very sympathetic and friendly man, and we ended up talking “local authors”. Apparently, the most popular local author genre is “the hard times I experienced while I was growing up”. The French call this nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for mud) as exemplified in the four Yorkshiremen above. This is apparently what fills the shelves marked “Local Author”.

As a footnote, he did order one copy of On the Other Side of the Sky and said that he would order more if there seemed to be a demand. If anyone reading this is from Sutton or the neighbourhood, and feels that they need something different in the way of reading material, please feel free to pop into Waterstones and ask for a copy.

But I digress… When the first effects of Brexit started to strike (empty supermarket shelves, etc.) social media was full of people talking about “Blitz spirit” and so on. Most of these people were born long after the 1939-45 conflict, and had no idea what actually went on. Even today, it’s hard to find unromanticised accounts of the British reaction to the German air-raids. There was a class divide – the rich stayed safely underground in wine cellars of their clubs and hotels, the poor huddled under corrugated iron sheets with a few spadefuls of earth on top. That is, until there were riots demanding that the Underground stations be opened as shelters.

And even then, life wasn’t exactly all “White Cliffs of Dover” happy singsongs.

…there was widespread looting during the war. In 1940 there 4,584 cases of looting in London alone. People would come back to their bombed out houses to find their belongings stripped from the rooms. The black market in stolen goods and ration coupons was so widespread that the ‘spivs’ who operated it became a national obsession.

https://www.counterfire.org/articles/history/14482-the-real-blitz-spirit

The happy days of evacuee children leading an idyllic existence in the countryside, far from the falling bombs and the dirt and grime of the big cities? Quite a few were abused, or used as virtual slaves by their “hosts” – it wasn’t all roses.

And of course, the grinding hunger and cold. The misery of blackouts (and how many crimes went unnoticed and unreported in the dark?).

Of course, it wasn’t all misery, but it seems to me that there is a hunger which is especially British for a past that was actually pretty crappy, but we have chosen to hang Union Jacks over the mouldy patches on the wall and glorify the days of WWII, the Thatcher/Falklands years, and no doubt in 20 years’ time, those who are children now will look back with nostalgia on the days when “we had to huddle in blankets and eat cold baked beans because we couldn’t afford the gas bill. We had it tough, not like the kids today”.

As far as I can tell, such a nostalgia is particularly endemic to Britain (or possibly even to England). Yes, other countries may regret the passing of older, simpler times, but I don’t think they glorify ice-topped toilets over central heating, or mouldy carrots over the range of vegetables that were available pre-Brexit (the range has been reduced). This seems to be a particularly British form of masochistic fantasy. I’ll be interested to hear others’ comments.

Anyway, I shall continue my own forms of nostalgia, for times and places that never were, and were never intended to be, outside the pages of my writing.

Alchemy and Rosicrucians

Here’s another for my reading list – Cabala, Spiegel Der Kunst Und Natur, In Alchymia (that is, if I can find a copy anywhere and then make my way through old German). It incorporates some of my favourite subjects: mirrors, Kabbala, alchemy, and general Rosicrucian mysticism.

Note that the links here are to both nature, as you would expect from a science, but also to art. Alchemy was much more than simply attempting to turn metals into gold, or even seeking the philosopher’s stone. It’s a way of reconciling the heavens and the earth (all the astrological and alchemical equivalences).

But much more than this, there is a link with spirituality. The quest is a spiritual perfection, or gold, to be created through the transformation of vulgar matter – the human condition, or lead. To see this (astrology) as merely “what are the stars telling us?” or (alchemy) as a get-rich scheme (though there were certainly frauds and hucksters who played on this) is to miss the point.

Links between the two proto-sciences

I call these (alchemy and astrology) “proto-sciences” because in many ways they operated in the same way as modern scientific methods. There was meticulous measurement, an insistence on replication, and a theoretical underpinning (mistaken, but complex) guiding the processes.

The links can be clearly seen in the diagram here. We have the different alchemical processes linked not only to the signs of the zodiac, but also to the “planets“ and the “elements”. As you can see from the chart below, though, there is not always a consistency in the symbols used (the same discrepancies sometimes exist in modern science).

However, note the importance of the four Paracelsian “elements” in both charts: fire, water, earth, and air, which of course are represented by the Elementals: Salamanders, Undines, Gnomes, and Sylphs. All of these, of course, come into On the Other Side of the Sky as key plot ingredients as well as adding to the general ambience of the story..

Of course, both of these disciplines, alchemy and astrology, were starting from mistaken premises regarding the fundamental nature of things, but the idea of influence at a distance, which formed part of the astrological foundation, and also found expression in the idea of the Powder of Sympathy, and “weapon salve” was in some way responsible for Newton (a passionate alchemist) developing his appreciation of gravity and the laws governing it.

Mirrors – always a subject of fascination to me. Susanna Clarke uses mirrors most effectively in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as gateways to Faerie. I also use a bowl of water, acting as a magical “mirror” orscrying glass – and I am constantly fascinated by what lies on the other side of mirrors (as was Lewis Carroll, of course).

It’s clear that this worldview (the synthesis of astrology and alchemy) is holistic – taking into account the physical and the spiritual aspects of this world, and also the heavens. It’s not a “simple” or primitive model of the universe, even if it doesn’t correspond to what we now know, but it all comes together to create a system which is far from being nonsense, and it continues to hold my interest as a psychological view of the world (an interest also shared by Jung, of course).

Parents

a pastor standing beside a coffin conducting a funeral service

Our writing group (Lichfield Writers) gave us a prompt as follows:

The happy couple living next door have died in a horrific accident. When their parents show up for the funeral, you find out why the couple always changed the subject when you asked them about their families.

“Who was that?” Marianne asked Peter as he slumped into a chair and carefully put the phone on the kitchen table in front of him.

“The police. It’s about next door. Colin and Caroline.”

“Oh dear. Has their house been broken into? I didn’t hear anything. You went in yesterday to feed the cat and pick up their post while they’re on holiday. There wasn’t anything the matter then, was there?”

He sighed. “Sit down. It’s rather shocking, really. I mean, these things happen, but not to people you know. They’re both dead.”

Marianne turned pale. “Oh, the poor dears. What happened?”

“Accident on the M5. The one which was on the news last night.”

“Oh my God. Dead?”

He nodded. “For what it’s worth, the police say that death must have been instantaneous. They wouldn’t have suffered.” He thought about what an instantaneous death in a car crash would mean, and all he could think of was gory impalings or decapitations, or… He swallowed, fighting his nausea.

“I suppose I shouldn’t say it, or maybe I should, but it’s a mercy there are no children, isn’t it?” She made a face. “Oh, the poor dears,” she repeated. “Poor things. So young and so alive, and so devoted to each other.” She pulled out a handkerchief and started to cry. “Why did the police call you, anyway?”

“They had our name and phone number written on a card I gave them in case they ever needed to call us. The police wanted to know if we were next of kin.”

She sniffed and wiped her eyes. “Well, we’re not, are we? Who are, I wonder?”

Peter scratched his head. “I suppose his parents, or hers. The police asked me, and I said I didn’t know. I suppose they have their ways of finding out.”

“They never talk about their family or their parents, do they?”

“No, they never do– did, did they? Always seemed to want to talk about something else if the subject ever came up. Never went away at Christmas to see them. Or had them to visit.” It was going to be strange, thinking of them in the past tense. As Marianne had said, they had seemed so alive. They’d been good neighbours, helping out when Marianne had had to go into hospital, always ready with an invitation to share their barbecues, or New Year’s parties, and excellent company whenever they came round for a meal or just for a cup of coffee and a friendly chat. In a way, Peter and Marianne felt they’d become their neighbours’ parents. He’d worked it out once; Colin and Caroline were literally young enough to be his children. Or was it that he was old enough to be their father? Anyway…

“Perhaps they don’t have parents,” Marianne suggested.

“That’s silly, everyone has parents.”

“Not if their parents have died,” she pointed out. “Or maybe they were fostered, and they never knew their parents.”

“I suppose so.”

He poured himself a cup of coffee, added milk and sugar, and sipped. “I suppose we’re going to the funeral?”

“How will we know? Who’s going to tell us?”

“Maybe it will be in the local paper.”


A few days later, there was a short paragraph in the weekly Chronicle describing the crash, with the last paragraph informing the reader that there would be a committal and cremation at the municipal crematorium on the following Friday.

Peter dug out his black suit, which he hadn’t worn since… He couldn’t remember. “Have I even got a white shirt that still fits me?” he called downstairs from the bedroom.

“Are you going to wear black and white?” Marianne called back. “That’s so old-fashioned. People wear all sorts of colours to funerals now. They put what they expect you to wear in the notice.”

“Well, maybe I am old-fashioned, then. And there’s nothing in the paper asking me to wear a psychedelic tie-dye T-shirt.”


The crematorium chapel was empty when Peter and Marianne arrived about ten minutes before the funeral was due to start. The two coffins were sitting at the front. There were no flowers. The chapel was cold, and the winter sunlight barely pierced the gloom. Almost as soon as they took their places near the back, a dozen or so people entered the chapel – mainly in couples – with nameless faces Peter and Marianne recognised from Colin and Caroline’s barbecues. Peter seemed to be the only one wearing a black tie. The front rows remained unoccupied.

“We’re the oldest ones here,” Peter nudged Marianne and whispered. “By a generation.”

“No parents?” Marianne whispered back.

“No relations at all, by the look of it.”

As he spoke, two men about Peter’s age entered, hand in hand, and made their way to the front row where they sat, almost ostentatious in their black suits.

“Who are they?” Marianne whispered. “What are they doing? Are they hers or his or what?”
Peter shrugged as the minister entered.

The service, if you could call it that, was a flat affair, devoid of all emotion, sentiment, or religious feeling.

“And that’s that,” Peter said as the second coffin slid out of sight and the curtains closed. “No pale ale and pork pies afterwards. Not that anyone’s said anything about, anyway.”

The two men who had been sitting at the front left their seats first, walking up the aisle between the rows of mourners, hands linked. Both held handkerchiefs with their free hands with which they dabbed at their tear-streaked faces.

Peter looked around, but it seemed that no one seemed to recognise the pair, or be recognised by them. The chapel emptied, with Peter and Marianne being the last to leave.

The two older men were still standing outside, alone, weeping openly. One of them looked Peter in the eye in a way that it was impossible to ignore, and held out a hand.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. “I take it you are Peter and Marianne?”

Peter, surprised, shook the offered hand. “Yes, we are.”

“So glad to have met you at last. Colin and Caroline told Paul and me about you when we spoke on the phone with them. How good you were to them when they first moved into the house, and how you continued to make them feel welcome.”

The other man, presumably Paul, offered his hand in turn, and Peter and Marianne offered suitable vague words of sympathy.

“Excuse me asking,” Peter said, unable to contain his curiosity much longer, “but who…?”

“Who are we?” the other answered. “I’m Neil and this is Paul.” There was a silent pause of a few seconds. “Colin and Caroline never mentioned us to you?”

Peter shook his head.

“Oh, I see, I know that they did feel a bit embarrassed about us. You see, we are Colin’s and Caroline’s fathers.”

“You are Colin’s father?”

“Not really. I’m his stepfather.”

“And Paul is his father? I don’t think I really get what’s going on here.”

“Of course.” He smiled. “Let me help you understand. I was married, and my wife and I had a baby girl, Caroline. Sadly, my wife died as a result of complications in her second pregnancy a few years later. The baby also did not survive. So I was left with Caroline.”

“As for me,” broke in Paul, “my wife ran off with another man a year or so after she’d presented me with Colin. Left me with a baby boy to look after.” He shrugged. “I got a divorce, of course.”

“And we met each other,” Neil taking up the story, “at a group for single dads. There are quite a few of us. You might be surprised. Anyway, Paul and I hit it off together, and we both discovered that we, not to put too fine a point on it, fancied each other. Hadn’t really crossed my mind before then that I might go in that direction, but there you go. Love’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”

“Same with me,” said Paul. “I just knew somehow that Neil was the person I wanted to share the rest of my life with. So we moved in together, and just like we had, my Colin and his Caroline got on really well with each other. All the way through primary school, secondary school, and then college. Never really had eyes for anyone else, did they, Neil?”

Neil shook his head sadly. “Match made in heaven, it was.”

“And they got married?” Peter asked. “Is that legal?”

“Why shouldn’t it be?” Paul answered. “Neil and I are married now. We weren’t when the two Cs – that’s what we called them – got married. But why shouldn’t they get married? They knew each other much better than most couples do when they tie the knot, and they were very happy about the idea.

“And so were we.”

“But they never mentioned you,” Marianne said. “You never visited them. And as far as we know, they never visited you.”

“Oh, they loved their fathers all right. But it was a case of what would the neighbours say – no offence to you as neighbours. It seems that you understand us. Colin was working with some quite sensitive stuff at the Home Office, and despite all the recent changes that have taken place in society, their rather unusual setup might have raised a few eyebrows in Whitehall. And Caroline, of course, was an infant teacher. Again, if it had come out that her husband was her stepbrother, and that her parents were two men…”

“I see,” said Peter. He looked at Marianne. “You will come back with us and have at least a cup of tea, won’t you? Spend the night at our house if it’s too far to get back tonight?”

“Actually,” said Paul, looking at Neil, “we were planning to spend the night next door to you, in Colin and Caroline’s house. We might even move in there some time in the near future, since we inherit the place as next of kin. This town is a much nicer place to live than Lambeth, believe me. We’re both retired, and it seems like a good opportunity to make a break in our lives. But we accept your invitation to a cup of tea with pleasure.”

“Make that supper,” said Peter. “And we look forward to having you as our neighbours in the near future.”

Book promotions

business plan schedule written on the notebook

If you have written a book, or several books, you are likely to get quite a few messages offering to promote your book, putting your title and your name in front of several tens of thousands of Twitter followers, likers of Instagram accounts, etc. I get one or two of these each day.

Once in a while I go for the cheapest option on the offerings of these people (typically there are Silver, Gold and Platinum options, sometimes worded differently), and the Twitter feeds appear together with a link.

And the results? Almost nothing. In fact, I ran a week’s worth of these Twitter ads with a link, not to a direct sales outlet, but to my book page here. I can check where clicks to this page come from – and none, repeat none, came from the 300,000 (or whatever the number was) followers of this Twitter account, Instagram or Facebook entity.

So I look at another one which promises to do more – they will actually write reviews, promote a book as “Book of the Month” or even “Book of the Year”. All for a fee, of course, but on the face of it, quite a good deal. So, just for fun, I checked the Amazon sales rankings of a recent Book of the Month. In both the UK and the USA, they were actually lower than On the Other Side of the Sky. The book actually had quite an interesting premise, the cover was a far cry from the topless over-muscled male torso that seems to find its way onto the cover of so many titles now. The Look Inside feature showed me that the style was at the very least competent, if a little wooden and pedestrian (in my opinion, of course; others might like it).

So what had this author got from paying a reasonable sum for a review and the chance to become Book of the Month? Perhaps half a dozen sales? I don’t believe this is untypical of these sites.

Now there are more reputable sites around, BookBub being one of the largest (reviews/ratings very welcome, please), and Reedsy now offering a Discovery programme, in which On the Other Side of the Sky was featured by a reviewer who picked up both the good and the less good points of the story, ending up with four stars (read it here). There’s also Kirkus, where you can pay for a review, but is that really going to get you anywhere?

So… are these smaller autotweeting book promotion sites simply an extension of the vanity press industry? You have to wonder sometimes. But if anyone knows a good cost-effective way of getting your titles noticed by purchasers, I’m very happy to listen to what you have to say.

Should I have written this book?

After reading accounts of what the subprime crisis had meant to ordinary people, I was tempted, or perhaps even inspired to write a story about it.

I imagined someone who’d been abroad on military service, with little knowledge of what was actually happening in his home country (the USA), coming home and discovering what had happened to his family and friends, and taking revenge. Since the subprime crisis largely affected people of colour, I decided that the protagonist should be African-American and the family should come from suburban Ohio. [note: although the book is written using US spellings such as ‘color‘, this article uses UK spellings; ‘colour‘.]

For an opposite number, out to stop the revenge killings, I chose a financial journalist working in New York City. And they would be female and gay.

Now, I had saddled myself with a lot of what is often terms “cultural appropriation” there:

  • I am not American – I have never even lived in America for more than a couple of weeks at a time
  • I am not a person of colour
  • I have never served in the USMC, or any branch of any military, other than as an RAF cadet at school
  • I’ve never been to Ohio
  • I’ve only been in NYC for an afternoon
  • I am not female
  • I am not gay
  • And though I do have experience of working with large news organisations, I’ve never been employed by one

But even so, I wanted to write this book. I do have friends, both in the USA and also from the USA living in Japan, whose brains I could pick, and use to check dialogue and general flavour (and American spellings). One of those who provided the most assistance was Bev Thomas, a Facebook friend, who also wrote a short guide to assist those who are in danger of losing their homes, which I included in the book as an appendix.

STOP PRESS!

I’ve just dropped the price of the ebook to $0.99 or local equivalent worldwide. Get it from Amazon, or other booksellers.

Balance of Powers features an African-American Afghan vet, Major Henry Powers, USMC, who comes home to find his sister’s house repossessed by the bank which sold her the mortgage, and his sister and her children out on the streets – somewhere. While searching for them, he meets Jeanine and her children, who have likewise been made homeless. What he finds sends him into a killing rage, and bodies pile up in his wake as he discovers the corruption and sleaze that surrounds the whole business, from mortgage salesmen up to traders in international financial houses.

Meanwhile in New York, Kendra Hampton, financial journalist, finds out more about the Wall Street murders that have spooked the trading floors. She finds herself on a collision course with Powers, which ends dramatically in New York City.

Now all of this is quite a feat of imagination, when you’re writing from Japan. I was somewhat nervous when I first put it out with an American publisher, but judging from the reviews, no one seems to have noticed my British accent.

The book also includes some relatively explicit sex scenes and sexual references, a lot of four-letter words, and quite a lot of violence – way out of my usual comfort zone. Against which, I think I produced at least three well-rounded characters:

  • Major Henry Gillette Powers: ex-USMC Afghan vet. An intelligent compassionate man moved to acts of extreme violence by what he sees around him.
  • Jeanine (other name unknown): mother of three children, now single, and made homeless through the repossession of her house.
  • Kendra Hampton: financial journalist living and working in NYC. Partner with Liz.

And some dialogue that I enjoyed writing:

“Hey! Where are you going? Downtown’s the other way.”
“I know. I’ve been thinking.”
“Uh-oh. Every time a man says that, it means he’s thinking of dumping you.”
“Not exactly, but…”
“And that’s another one that means the same thing. Been nice knowing you, Henry. Stop the car now, so’s I can get out? Pop the trunk, let me get my things? Okay?”
“It’s not that.”

Balance of Powers: Ch 11

And also some writing of interactions that I feel pleased with:

He was more than a little intimidating – a tall, well-built black man in a beautifully-cut suit and a military air about him. He introduced himself only as “Henry”, without a last name. She noticed a Marine Corps ring on one hand, but refrained from asking any questions about it.
“Did you know Mr. Reichman?” she asked him.
“Yes, ma’am, I did.” Very cool and correct, not giving away more than he had to.
There was something vaguely familiar about his face. “Have we met?”
“I’m sure I would remember you, ma’am.” A smile which ickered briey and then vanished as if it had never been.
“Strange,” she mused. “Pardon my curiosity, but may I ask how you met Mr. Reichman?”
“We met at a social event.” This guy wasn’t going to give anything away. Something told her that uttering her eyelashes at him and using her feminine charms was going to have as much effect on him as it would do on the coffee machine in the corner.

Balance of Powers Ch 22

So all in all, it’s a book I’m pleased with. It has good characters, a decent plot, a message that doesn’t beat you over the head, and a style that perhaps disguises the origin of its author.

Was it really 14 years ago?

airport bank board business

I’m referring to the large financial disaster, which brought about the demise of some of the largest financial institutions in the world, and affected the lives of many. At the time I was living in Japan, where the crisis caused by the securitisation of bad loans was known as “The Lehman Shock”, Lehman Brothers being one of the most prominent casualties of this seismic event.

I was working on the fringes of the financial world, having worked in two major non-Japanese financial institutions, and working for a Japanese bank at the time, but I was minimally affected, though I lost out on a contract to pre-edit Bear Stearns’ investor prospectus prior to the issue of a Japanese version.

However, several of my friends within the financial services industry were affected, and I came to learn of the hardship caused by the dishonest practices of the lenders who took advantage of their clients to earn a fast buck. Michael Lewis’s The Big Short is an excellent introduction to all this (the movie, not so much, in my opinion). In any event, it spurred me into writing two books. Here’s something about the first one.

At the Sharpe End

This was my lecture at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, of which I subsequently became a member, where I introduced the book to a number of people, both Japanese and foreign residents of Japan. It’s quite long, but I think it’s worth watching.

I started to write this some time before the 2008 crash. It was based loosely around what I knew of the financial industry from my own experience, and the experiences of my friends.

It concerns a freelance consultant living in Tokyo (I always say that the protagonist, Kenneth Sharpe, is not me, but I could not have created him without my experiences) who finds himself in possession of a secret technology that allows him to make money in large quantities (technologies very similar to this technology actually exist now – fiction prefiguring fact).

(You can find the book for sale here)

Anyway, for the plot to be interesting, the hero can’t just waltz off into the sunset with his pockets bulging with cash – there must be something to hold the reader’s interest. In this case, I really wanted an external catastrophe that prevented the technology from doing its thing, and so guess what I chose? I was living in Japan, a country with frequent earthquakes and a reliance on nuclear power for much of its energy needs.

March 11, 2011

Yes, I chose an earthquake which wrecked a nuclear power station. This was in 2007/early 2008, several years before the Fukushima disaster. I don’t claim enormous credit for predicting this. I’m not a prophet. The Hamaoka power station, which was the one I described as being wrecked, is situated on the junction of three fault lines. In my opinion, a bloody stupid place to build a fault line. I also did not take account of tsunami action. Incidentally, I was convinced at one point that my wife and I, along with thousands more, were going to die from radiation poisoning. We were lucky that was not the case, though I probably have absorbed more radiation than if I had been living in the UK at the time.

However, after writing this section, along came the Lehman Shock, which made my earthquake rather redundant. I therefore had to change the story a bit, and also, given the time of the year, had to change some of the details in the story to reflect this (heaters went off, air-conditioners went on, etc.). I also incorporated some of the conversations that I’d had with my financial friends in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, where I launched the book (always nice to talk about your book in the places featured in the book – happened to me twice now).

The first edition didn’t incorporate the quake, but used the Lehman shock but when I republished with Inknbeans Press in 2012 (post-Fukushima), I added the parts that I had originally written, and the current editions also have .

Anyway, a lot of readers have found it to be a very convincing and authentic look at life in Japan for non-Japanese, as well as being a well-written thriller with lots of twists and turns, and some interesting characters.

Next, I’ll be writing about my other book that came out of the subprime crisis – Balance of Powers.