Saturday, 23 April 2016

Special effects

Last time I wrote an entry here, I mentioned that I was possibly working on something else for Doctor Who Magazine.

Well, that "something else" ended up being three things - three pieces for their latest special edition, this one concentrating on special effects, which came out last week. Special effects isn't an area I would consider myself to be a particular expert on, but editor Marcus Hearn very kindly liked two of the ideas I pitched to him, and also suggested another idea for me to go and work on, all of which I think ended up being quite successful.

So now, on the shelf of your nearest WH Smith's or other good newsagent, you can find the special effects edition with pieces by me on the effects company Trading Post, on the alternative effects made as optional extras for the DVD range, and an interview with Eric Alba, the effects supervisor on the 1996 TV Movie.

Plus, of course, there's a lot of other wonderful stuff in the magazine, all beautifully laid out and designed.

Stemming from this, it seems as if I will also be contributing a couple of items to their next "bookzaine" special, too, this one concentrating on the historical stories. I've been extremely fortunate - actual, paid writing work, about a subject I love and enjoy writing about!

I still haven't finished off the new Alice Flack story, however. I've been very busy with radio work, but really do need to knuckle down and get it done soon, especially given that David Lavelle has already completed the cover art!

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Latest doings

Once again, a pathetic failure to keep up with this blog with any kind of regularity, for which I apologise to anybody who has any interest in reading the thing – which fortunately can’t be very many people, as I haven’t had much in the way of complaint for the absence of entries! Probably just as well.

I’ll try and be a bit better at adding updates as 2016 goes along, but we shall see.

It’s not as if I haven’t had things to talk about. In November I actually launched another blog, born from my previously-stated love of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Called Watching the Carol, it’s intended as an ongoing project to watch and review as many different film and television versions of A Christmas Carol as I can find. I managed to get a good few in before the end of 2015, and later this year I shall take up the thread again. It’s quite good fun to do, and although pretty pointless, isn’t everything?

 Not very seasonal for February, I realise!

I also finally finished my long-planned documentary about why so many writers seem to flock to Norwich at the end of last year, and it was broadcast on BBC Radio Norfolk twice over the Christmas and New Year period. It wasn’t one of my best programmes – it lacked a bit of colour, and was rather on the dry side. But it was interesting to do, and I did get some nice comments about it both from people who were in it and people who weren’t, so it was by no means a disaster.

I’ve already made my next feature programme, too – not really a proper documentary as such, as it’s a collection of lots of individual stories without any kind of overarching narrative, but it’s going out tomorrow at 12 midday. It’s part of the big pan-BBC People’s History of Pop initiative – a drive to try and tell the story of what it was like to be a music fan in the pop and rock era through the stories of music lovers, with tales of favourite gigs and venues, and special pieces of memorabilia.

We knew late last year that the BBC Local Radio stations were each going to be making a tie-in programme for this, and I was interested in doing it, but it was only at the beginning of last month that we found out it was going to be on as soon as the 7th of February. I’m quite pleased with it – there are some nice stories in there, and I hope I’ve done them justice. Here’s one of my favourites as a preview:

In the world of my fiction writing, I have been sort of doing a few plans and scribbles for a couple of new ideas, but nothing solid yet. I haven’t heard back from any of my last few submissions of Another Life to agencies, but did send another one off last month. I do have a second Alice Flack story very near completion – I did the bulk of it last summer, but got sidetracked by other projects for work and elsewhere in the autumn and never got it completed, but I should do so soon. The superb David Lavelle has kindly accepted another commission to do the cover for this one, so it should be up as an e-book on Amazon sometime this spring.

Non-fiction is proving to be more fruitful. After I had my David Fisher interview published in Doctor Who Magazine last year, I mentioned how I had a possible idea for another piece for them, which I then got very heavily into researching and writing. It ended up being too long and too difficult to illustrate, but having had a bit of a gap from it I have been able to edit it down a bit more pragmatically, and found what I hope are enough photos to go with it, and it looks as if it may possibly appear in the magazine sometime this year. I’ve also had discussions about something else related to DWM too, which looks as if it could result in another piece… Again, more on that if and when. But a very positive start to the year in terms of actual professional writing for which I actually get paid! I know that sounds horribly mercenary, but as I’ve said before, if someone considers your material worth actually buying, it does feel like a validation of what you do, and that you do actually have some sort of ability.

Oh, and I did finish that Scarrowbeck thing for the Treasure Quest Facebook page and Children in Need in the end. It was complete crap, apart from the first chapter, but the fans kindly donated £180, beating the target I’d set, so it wasn’t entirely worthless.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The Day I Left School

 All of us, bar Gemma, in the playground at the end of our last day at Clapham & Patching, in July 1995

It’s twenty years ago this week – and possibly even twenty years ago to the day, although I cannot be sure – since I left primary school.

This doesn’t have a huge amount to do with my writing, the main subject of this blog, other than that it was at primary school when I first decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I don’t remember a specific moment when I decided that, but I do remember the joy of writing stories. I wrote a whole series of little stories at primary school about a character called “Paul Pumpkin the Pirate”, had huge fun writing them, and there was probably more imagination and creativity present in those than anything I write today. Somehow, I think, all but the best of us somehow get bogged down once we leave childhood. That creativity dies away.

But anyhow, this is by way of excusing the fact that this blog post is not about my writing at all. It’s a reflection on the fact that twenty years have now passed since I spent my final day of a very happy six-and-a-bit years as a pupil at Clapham & Patching Church of England Primary School.

I have been accused on occasion of living too much in the past, of looking back too often. I am fond of the past, it’s true, but I don’t think obsessively so. I am the sum of everything that has happened to me so far, and it would feel wrong to ignore it or forget about it. Some of it is embarrassing, or sad or upsetting, or incredible to think I was even the same person at the time, but all of it is what went into making me who I am. I look forward, I go on, I do new things, but I have a sense and in many ways an affection for everything I used to be, of the people and places that were once so familiar.

I think one of the reasons it’s been on my mind is because there’s a certain amount of desk moving going on at work at the moment, pending a little reorganisation of the newsroom, and in that final week at Clapham we had a big movement going on as well. When I’d started at the school – in January 1989, as far as I can tell, just before I turned five – Class One, for the youngest years, was in the classroom facing into the playground, and Class Two, for the four oldest years, was in the classroom at the front of the school.

They swapped round in the early 1990s, and for all of my time in Class Two, from autumn 1991 onwards, we were in the classroom facing onto the playground… Until those last few days of the summer term of 1995, when we were all busily engaged in sorting everything out and changing everything around and moving back again. I can remember feeling slightly aggrieved that I’d be ending my time at the school in the “wrong” classroom…

In the "wrong" classroom, at the end of the last day

It was a hot summer day, of course it was – aren’t they always when looking back on childhood days? But there are photographs to prove it, in this case. Funny little details stick in the memory. I remember how Mrs Breese – one of the finest teachers ever to have graced a classroom – had written on the whiteboard “The Grand Finale for Year 6!” I had to squint to see it, the note of the eye test I’d failed at school still hidden away in a drawer in my bedroom at home, not yet confessed to mum because for some odd reason known only to the mind of an 11-year-old, I felt horribly guilty about my increasing myopia and didn’t want to admit to it.

It’s almost alarming how some details that are quite important have slipped my memory. I have had a sudden attack of uncertainty as to whether the leavers’ service at Clapham church was actually on the last day – I have a vague memory that occasionally they wouldn’t be, and might be a day or two beforehand… 

 The only picture I seem to have of all nine of us, outside Clapham church after the leavers' service, with the books we were given as parting gifts from the school, one of the grand traditions of the place!

They were always quite the symbolic occasion of finality, though. I had of course been attending them for the past few years, and as our leavers’ service approached, I think we were quite excited about the books we would be given. The Year 6 leavers were always presented with a bible and another book (one they might actually like), and I can remember it seeming like a very serious and important occasion when, probably a week or two before the end of term, Mrs Skitt took us out to the picnic table in the playground one morning to discuss with us what books we might like.

I had my heart set on either a Formula One or a Doctor Who book (so as you can tell if you know me now, I have not changed a great deal in some respects!) In the end I was given Journeys of the Great Explorers, not a bad choice as I did always enjoy history at primary school, but it did make the whole thing seem a little more disappointingly random than I had hoped!

They also gave us each a large, laminated colour blow-up of a photo of ourselves from the school archives. Mine was me a few years before, holding a plastic bottle with wheels and a sail fitted to it, turning it into some sort of land yacht model, made for some project or other.

I remember being pleased that it wasn’t the normal local vicar taking the leavers’ service, as I couldn’t stand him. Instead it was some random stand-in vicar we’d never met before, but he seemed quite jovial and was impressed when I knew the answer to some question he posed to the congregation about the conquest of Everest… I forget what it was now – he might have been asking who first climbed it.

I remember also being pleased that Mrs Smart, who’d left a year or two before, came back for the service… Alarmingly, I can’t remember if Miss Harvey, the head teacher for most of our time there who’d retired the previous year, was there… I have a vague memory of thinking she hadn’t been, and then afterwards being told she had actually been there but had slipped in and sat quietly at the back…

(We didn’t like the head teacher who’d had the temerity to succeed her. As far as we were concerned, she was very firmly “The Enemy”, and that was that…)

There were nine of us, which was a large year group for that school, for which having a grand total of fifty pupils in all years would have been operating pretty much at maximum. In the year above us, there’d been only three – in the year below, just two.

We did have a feeling of “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” though. And that’s not just a retrospective, nostalgic view – at one point over the summer after we’d left, we even organised a “Year 6 Reunion”, most of us gathering at Lisa from the yeargroup’s house to chomp on McDonald’s and watch videos on afternoon… Cool Runnings and one of the Naked Gun films, as I recall!

I remember trying not to lose face by crying at the end of Cool Runnings, as I was quite moved by it… But weeks earlier, on that hot July day when we finished, I did cry about leaving primary school. It wasn’t utter devastation, I didn’t think my life was over… But I was sad. When you’re eleven and have been at a school for six years, it forms the majority of your memories of life. Six years seems like an eternity at that age. And I’d enjoyed my time there.

It was a fine old school. Still is, I’m sure. And I am proud, very proud, of the education I received there. Not just the facts I learned or the abilities I gained, but of the character of what they taught us, too. You’d think a village school in the heart of rural Sussex would be a staid, conservative sort of place, perhaps. But like all the best schools, it taught us to question, to wonder… And to be decent human beings. I have a clear memory of us being taught about Martin Luther King, just for one example, and the utter pointlessness and poison of racism.

I was not a perfect pupil. I’m not sure I was even a very good one. I could be incredibly difficult, extremely stubborn, I’d often refuse point-blank to work in groups, and I had quite a violent temper and could fly off the handle quite suddenly if I didn’t get my way or felt embarrassed, upset or frustrated. I could be quite vile to people for no reason whatsoever. I would frequently, as was the parlance of the day, “get in a stress.”

Indeed, one of my major memories of school life is frequently being sent to Miss Harvey's office, and sitting on the floor in there looking at the Pobody's Nerfect sticker on the opposite wall...

But, for all of that, I was and am a much better person for having been to that school.

There was an assembly of some sort at the end of the final day, I think. With the big white doors that separated the assembly area from the front classroom open, and the school sitting down and facing out into the classroom… I remember, and have a photo of, us Year Sixes performing some sort of impromptu comedy sketch for the entertainment of the assembly, although I don’t remember anything about what it contained. The photo shows me mock-admonishing Alex Fox, who is laying face-down on the floor having perhaps pretended to fall over, as Tim Crighton, perhaps waiting for his cue, watches on from the doorway through to the other class… Whatever we were doing is, alas, lost to history!

 Messing around for the assembly, at the end of the last day. You can see where most of us have removed the name stickers from our trays. Lisa, sitting behind Jenny, looks as if she might be holding some sort of script for whatever it was we were doing... Mrs Skitt and the class one teacher, Miss King, look amused, anyway!

I remember many of us who were leaving peeling the name stickers from the front of our “trays” (the drawers where we kept our pencils, books, etc) and sticking them to our clothes… I still had mine for years afterwards, sellotaped to the side of my wardrobe in my bedroom at home.

I remember mingling and posing for photographs in the playground at the end of the day, not quite able to believe it really was all over, and that chapter of my life had gone for good… As was often the case on nice days many of us went up the road to the village rec after, and I remember Howard Johnson from a couple of years below asking me, with some surprise, if it really was true that I’d cried, as he didn’t think it seemed like the sort of thing I’d do.

I said it was true, I did cry, because I was sad…

I find myself rather stunned to sit here and think that it’s been twenty years since it all happened. I could never have conceived of where I would be and what I would be doing back then. I never had any plans for the future at all other than “become a writer.” Sometimes it was alongside other childish ambitions – to be in the fire brigade, to be in the navy, to be a Formula One team owner… But always alongside being a writer. I can’t even think what the eleven-year-old me would make of me now – would he be disappointed, I wonder?

I can’t decide if it seems like it’s passed by in a flash, or if it does seem like such a gulf of time since then. It’s terrifying to think that in another twenty years I will be in my fifties… That’s one of the reasons for writing this rant about it all, I suppose, so get some of the memories down before they fade any further.

Life depends on change, or so they say, and we’d stagnate if we stayed in one place, at one time, in one state of mind forever. The joy of some moments depends on their very transience – if you try and keep everything the same it simply withers and dies.

I know that now, of course, as a grown-up, but it was still a culture shock to suddenly go from a village school of fifty to a comprehensive school of over a thousand. I had some idea of what to expect from the fact my older brother and sister had been down the same route already, and from watching Grange Hill on TV!

But Angmering and I did not get along terribly well initially, and I felt rather adrift in it all, I think… I have a clear memory, very early on in my time there, possibly on our first proper day, of meeting up with the others from Clapham who’d gone there, outdoors at lunchtime. We were sitting around one of the picnic tables they used to have alongside that bit off the quad that ran between the L block and the reception / staff room bit… We probably talked a bit about the new school and how we were finding it, and I remember Gemma Eldridge, as she then was, asking “is this where we’ll meet up, then?” I quite liked the idea of us little band of Clapham alumni sticking together, still being a unit of some sort, meeting up every lunchtime… But it was all smoke in the clouds, of course. Quickly blown away. I don’t think we ever did meet up there again, and we all found new groups, new people, new lives really… We still knew each other, of course, but we weren’t some independent unit within the big school. We became part of a much bigger year group.

And, it has to be said, one I was also extremely fond of, in the end. I didn’t cry when I finally left Angmering all those years later, but I was just as wistful about leaving as I had been about Clapham. I may not have enjoyed my early years at Angmering, but by the end I loved it, and felt part of a community, a happy one too.

I don’t believe that your school years are necessarily the best days of your life. There was a time when I did think that, in my late teens and early twenties, when I was at university and then in the early years of employment, doing a dull job I didn’t enjoy at all.

Now, of course, I am fortunate enough to be part of another community, doing a job I enjoy and doing something with an end product. School is all about preparing you for the world, and is in many ways simply a means to an end. Now, I do something which actually has an end to it, a result. You can argue over whether it has value, but there it is.

As impossible as it was for that 11-year-old Paul to imagine where he’d be at the age of 31, I suppose it’s equally impossible for me to imagine where I will be and what I will be doing at the age of 51. What’s probably more frightening is that when I am sitting and reading this back in 2035, it probably won’t feel all that long since I wrote it…

Anyway, here’s to us – Gemma, Emma, Lisa, Jenny, Alex F, Alex M, Tim and Sarah. And to Miss Harvey, Mrs Skinner, Mrs Breese, Mrs Smart and Mrs Skitt… Very happy times and places, that I wouldn’t have missed for all the world.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Into the charts!

In the charts - briefly! 8th July 2015

On Sunday, Val - the lady I wrote about the other day, who kindly sent me an e-mail about how much she'd enjoyed The Ruined Heart - posted about the ebook on the Facebook page for Treasure Quest, a programme I produce on BBC Radio Norfolk. This led to 11 sales on Sunday, and pushed me right up towards my target of 20 in total. A few days on, and I have now passed it - 21 sales at last count, which means that Alice Flack will ride again.

I noticed when checking the Amazon page last night that this little spike in sales also meant I was propelled to the dizzy heights of number 93 in the "historical thrillers" chart in the Kindle Store! Given that this was on the basis of just those 21 copies being sold it doesn't really say much for the ebook sales at the bottom end of this chart, but hey... It's something!

I've also had a very nice review left on the Amazon page. I must admit that it was from a friend of mine, Lauren (who blogs extensively here), but hey - she didn't have to say anything at all! So I'm very grateful to her, and flattered that she liked it. She wrote:

Alice Flack is a bit of a mystery, arriving in a sleepy village and discovering a secret hidden for years. In fact she still is a mystery after reading the book and I'm hoping there will be more stories soon so we find out a little more about her! Definitely worth a read, the perfect length for me as a busy mum too!

Well, Lauren will be happy as there are indeed to be further Alice Flack stories - or at least one. Simply because the story idea had been in my mind for months and I wanted to finally sit down and tackle it, I began writing the second Alice story, Voices in the Dark, at the beginning of this month. My reasoning was that if it was around the 25 to 30,000 word mark, as planned, then if I did 500 words a day throughout July and August I'd then have it finished, ready for the time I'd have hopefully met my sales target.

That target has been met, and I've actually been averaging a bit more than 500 words, and am enjoying putting it together.

 "A writer is someone who counts words," John Braine said. My daily and cumulative totals so far for July on the new Alice Flack story!

In the meantime, if you haven't yet, please do feel free to add your 99p to the pot and buy The Ruined Heart from Amazon here:

And thank you to everyone else who has bought it so far!

Alice Flack will return...