Saturday, 30 December 2017

From Zero to Three Novels in 2017 - by Debbie Young, Author of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

(from left to right) Orna Ross, me and Katie Fforde at the first Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival in April 2015 (Photo by Clint Randall)
Writing on the penultimate day of 2017, I can't NOT think about where this year has taken me and what next year will bring. 

Don't worry - I'm not going to be banging on about New Years' Resolutions. I love new beginnings and seize every opportunity for one - new school terms (I have a school-age daughter), solstices, equinoxes, birthdays, etc. But I was cured of an addiction to Resolutions a couple of years ago by my friend and mentor, the author and creativism teacher Orna Ross (you may also know her as the founder and director of the Alliance of Independent Authors).

Orna Ross made me realise that New Years' Resolutions generally focus on the negative: things to give up or bad habits to reform. Her recommendation is to state Creative Intentions instead - a more positive, constructive system which focuses on the process rather than the outcome.

Novel Intentions

This is the approach I took for 2017, and, hey presto, it turned me into a novelist. Instead of saying as midnight chimed on 31st December 2016 "This is the year I'll write my first novel" (for the umpteenth time), I formulated a specific plan to write and self-publish the first three Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries seven-book series, for which I'd fixed the names and broad character outlines of the key characters, the titles of each book, the timeframe of the series (the course of a village year from one summer to the next), and the timeframe for publication, starting with three books in 2017, to match the timing of each book's setting.

The key difference? I had an actionable - ambitious but still actionable - plan that made a lifelong dream seem tangible, believable and real. 

I also stated my intention publicly, a kind of reverse of "naming and shaming", or, to put it a more positive way, like a creative marriage vow, that made me feel more committed, as if it was an inevitable result.

Thus Best Murder in Show, taking place in the summer at the time of the vllage horticultural show, was to launch on April 1st (Orna's birthday, by no coincidence). Trick or Murder?, set at Halloween and Guy Fawkes' Night, was out at the end of August, and Murder in the Manger, revolving around a nativity play that goes wrong, was published on 6th November - picking up the day after the last book left off.

So, from 0-3 novels in a year - and I'm three-quarters of the way through writing the next one (Murder by the Book, due out in April), and am planning two further books in the series for 2018, with the final one - plus three bonus spin-offs (an eighth novel, a novella, and a short-story collection)  planned for 2019. 
From nought to three novels in the space of a year - no wonder I'm looking pleased with myself! (Photo: Dominic Cotter, BBC Radio Gloucestershire lunchtime show presenter)

I confess it left me exhausted - physically, mentally and emotionally - and I've realised that as a novelist, I'm an all-or-nothing girl. When I'm in novel-writing mode, I'm totally immersed, waking and sleeping. Literally: if my last thought at night is how to solve a plot problem or a character issue, and my first thought on waking is its solution.

So aware have I become this year of the power of my unconscious, and at times feeling as if I'm simply taking dictation rather than consciously writing, if this was medieval times, I'd worry that I'd be burnt as a witch. 

But it's been a deeply exciting and rewarding year, and it has made me very happy.

If you'd like to find out more about my novels and other aspects of my writing life, visit my website: All three novels are available as Kindle ebooks (coming to other ebook platforms soon) and to order from all good bookshops by quoting the ISBN (and from Amazon if you prefer to shop online - here's the link to the Amazon page for the three-book series so far).

Festival Intentions

One other creative intention for the new year is the Fourth Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on Saturday 21st April 2018, for which I'm just finalising the programme.

I launched this Festival series in my village in 2015 as a one-evening event, offering free events for all, to be accessible even to those who couldn't afford conventional litfest tickets and the associated costs of events such as the Cheltenham, Bath and Hay-on-Wye festivals. (As I live in the Cotswolds, I'm not far from any of those.)

It has now grown into a day-long, action-packed programme featuring about 50 authors in talks, workshops and readings - all still free to attend. Check out its website to catch news updates from 1st January:

What are your creative intentions for 2018? I'd love to know!

If you'd like a more expert and detailed definition of Creative Intentions, you're just in time to register for Orna's free webinar on Tuesday 2nd January here.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Bali Highs: N M Browne

It can’t be the New Year already! Looking back on last year’s post, which I swear I wrote about five minutes ago, I can’t help but be
grateful that we are still here. Still here and still writing. 
  So much changes and so much stays the same. Last year I was taking a few hours out of a big family Christmas to cobble together, or rather, share my profound reflections on the meaning of life, with a cup of coffee in chilly London, this time I am in a holistic vegan cafe in Bali with a glass of coconut water, but the world in my head is much the same. As Neil Gaiman says ‘ wherever you go you take your self with you.’
  Even for the most solipstic of writers, travel brings emotional as well as physical distance from the patterns of everyday life. In among the pleasures of new tastes, smells, conversations and experiences, it is a huge reminder of privilege. 
   A few days ago, as I sat under a thatched canopy, drinking Bintang and laughing with my family, I watched a woman of roughly my age, trudging through paddy fields with a huge, woven palm leaf basket on her head. It was obviously heavy and she swayed a little as she walked under the weight. She looked thin and worn, but walked slowly and straight backed, just getting on with it. I didn’t know the story of her life, and for once I didn’t allow myself to make one up. We viewed her, as we might an exotic zoo animal, our view designed not just to take in the expanse of fields but also the people in them as if they were put there to make an entertaining moving tableau for wealthy tourists. It felt horribly colonial, and not a little uncomfortable. 
   The woman did not look at us. She was focused on the narrow, muddy  path in front of her: she was considerably busier living her life than we were  watching her. She made an impact on all of us, and, after watching her, I made myself a promise that I would never whinge about my lot again. 
   Writing can be arduous and disappointing but it is never that relentlessly hard. All the opportunities I have had - to study, to travel, have built a space in my head a small theatre for dreaming and inventing other lives. Some of the productions played there are definitely substandard, and an objective reviewer would definitely think I could work harder, think deeper, write better, but the theatre exists only because I have had the time and freedom to build it. 
 For all I know that other woman’s theatre might have been showing matinees of extraordinary richness and complexity. I hope it was, but I doubt that she has the leisure to write them down, to be free just to indulge in the play of her imagination.

  So here in the holistic cafe with the sound of a cock crowing, motorcycles roaring past, the whirr of the electric ceiling fan and the low irritating buzz of a pneumatic drill and the ever present, hungry mosquitoes,  I make my New Year’s resolution: to keep going, to keep my back straight and my eyes focused on my own route and to just get on with it.  Happy New Year!

Thursday, 28 December 2017

John Masefield, Victor Hely-Hutchinson and Forgetteries by Enid Richemont

I have a very active Forgettery. We all have one of these - a place where we store idealised images, like an album into which we post nothing disagreeable or upsetting. The perfect summer is always in there - the blue skies, the flowers, the lavish picnic without squabbles, sweat or wasps, the turquoise pool into which perfect children jump and splash quite noiselessly, the perfect affair between a couple of unbelievably beautiful people with sungold skin - remember those two? Thought it would never end, but it did. Endings have no place in the Forgettery, though, so it doesn't show.

Most people have lengthy summer sections in their Forgetteries - after all, who wants winter, unless you ski, and even then, things look better when the sun is shining, don't they? I, however, am a winter person. I like a bit of drama in my weather, and I enjoy the cold and seeing my breath clouding in the air, and the pleasure of coming into a warm house afterwards, books, TV, and maybe a whisky or two? Winter sunsets are stunning - that's one of our recent ones over North London up there, pure gold.

I recently began watching old episodes of THE BOX OF DELIGHTS (more on that to come), and then, after stopping and starting, frustrating amber weather warnings for the snow that never happened, a half a dozen small snowflakes fluttered down, inspiring the usual jokes about 'snow on the line' and the incompetence of our Transport services (how much better they coped in Switzerland and Norway, and as for Moscow...) Then, my God! It did snow, and hasn't stopped since.

At present I have a seriously dodgy ankle, so I daren't venture forth on slush or ice. My Forgettery winters didn't include things like cabin fever, and the inability to go out for a walk. They didn't take into consideration not being able to trudge up to my local supermarket to replenish my supply of the above-mentioned whisky - all neatly air-brushed out. And yet - oh, such beauty - the strange tracery of the bare branches of my silver birch thinly outlined in white, one or two of its very last Autumn leaves now hanging like baubles. My patio table has grown a perfectly rounded white lid, and a small sempervivum in a pot has acquired a neatly formed ice-cream topping. So am I tempted to open my Forgettery and bask in summer's warmth? A little, yes, until I spoil things by remembering the invasion of ants in my kitchen and the fly that wouldn't stop buzzing but couldn't be swatted, so for me, winter still wins hands-down.

And so to THE BOX OF DELIGHTS, first dramatised by the BBC aeons ago as a radio drama for children, and then again in the 80s as a TV production. For me, this story has always been the essence of Christmas, with its very English snowy winter, the cathedral choir, the nasty fake clergymen with their terrifying underworld, the Punch and Judy man with his magic box which he entrusts to young Kay Harker, thus making him a target for the evil ones - if you don't know this book, written by one of our greatest poets, then you're in for a treat. For me, though, it was the music that accompanied the productions: "A Carol Symphony", that was unforgettable and haunting, so I finally tracked down the composer - the now little-known, but once, briefly, quite famous Victor Hely-Hutchinson, a child musical prodigy from South Africa, who, following an illustrious career, died prematurely, during the harsh winter of 1947, aged only 46. There's a splendid article about him on the Web, written by his son, if you want to know more.

As this blog won't appear until December 28th, I can only say in retrospect that I hope you all had a totally wonderful Christmas, and to wish you a peaceful and creative New Year.
My latest book: ONE HUNDRED WISHES, comes out early in 2018. It's published by Franklin Watts at Hachette.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Rich and Powerful go Shopping for Ghostwriters - Andrew Crofts

What do the global rich come to London for? To hire their butlers, to buy their art, to shop for clothes and houses – oh and the culture; they come for the culture.

For a while we called it “soft power”. When we threw our Olympics opening party we flexed those muscles to their full extent and books and their characters were a mighty part of the show. There was Mary Poppins and Harry Potter of course, James Bond skydiving with the Queen, a host of characters who looked as if they had come straight from the pages of Dickens and declamations from the pens of Shakespeare and a variety of other poets. Was Jane Austen invited? I can’t remember but she should have been, if only for the wonderful inspiration she provided for Bridget Jones.

In the eyes of the world London is the city of Byron and John Murray, T.S. Eliot and Faber, George Bernard Shaw and the Bloomsbury Group; so where else would you go to buy your ghostwriter?

Robert Harris sealed our reputation a few years ago when he wrote The Ghost, a thriller centring on a ghostwriter hired by a barely disguised Tony Blair. Roman Polanski turned the book into a darkly glamorous movie with Pierce Brosnan as the ex-prime minister and Ewan McGregor as the ghost who is very soon dragged out of his depth into murky international waters. It painted a chillingly accurate picture of how the business often works.

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Real ghostwriters in America and Europe have also been in the news a fair bit recently. Tony Schwartz, the man who ghosted The Art of the Deal for Donald Trump expressed his regret at “putting lipstick on a pig”. Mr Trump replied by suggesting that Mr Schwartz might like to return the considerable sums of money that he had earned from the book, while at the same time insisting that he had written every word himself and that Tony Schwartz had written nothing. Helmut Kohl, Germany’s second longest serving Chancellor behind Bismark passed away while suing his ghost, Heribert Schwan, for five millions euros for allegedly publishing material from their conversations in a book of his own, and Barbara Feinman Todd has just written what must be the ultimate ghosting memoir, Pretend I’m Not Here.

Feinman Todd started as a journalist on the Washington Post and ghosted for the journalists who exposed Watergate, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, and for Ben Bradlee, their editor. She then went on to ghost for Hillary Clinton while she was First Lady and gives a riveting insight into life in the Clinton White House. In the process she sheds considerable light on how Mrs Clinton came to lose the affection and respect of the American people so dramatically.

Charmed by Woodward into being indiscreet about an incident where Clinton held some sort of séance in the White House, Feinman Todd found herself cut off by the Clintons when Woodward betrayed her confidence and published the story in his own book. She is a woman who has worked many years at the coalface of professional writing and Pretend I’m Not Here is the best book about the writing life since William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screentrade, which was published thirty years ago.

I can entirely feel her pain when she writes of realising that she has made a fundamental mistake in her eagerness to impress and please a man she greatly admires. She admits it was a terrible error and so it is. However much we ghosts may regret having agreed to “apply lipstick” to a client who turns out to be a “pig”, the deal has been done and we must stick to it. We have taken the King’s Shilling and we must serve loyally or face the consequences. We must respect their confidences, just as their lawyers and their doctors do, because that is what we have agreed to. They have to be able to trust us or they will not talk freely and we will never get close to seeing into their souls.

The hiring of a ghostwriter is a mutually seductive process. They know that their reputations are going to be channelled through our eyes and they are eager to make the right impression, while at the same time being eager to maintain the upper hand in the relationship. As a result they tend to like to meet in their palatial homes or in the nooks, crannies and restaurants of hotels that they think will reflect well on them.

The darkly polished Bulgari Hotel in Knightbridge is almost opposite the McLaren showroom at the base of the Candy Brothers’ monument to the new order of global wealth, and equidistant between Harrods and Harvey Nichols. It is particularly popular with Russians, Middle Easterns and Africans as a venue for brief meetings. For longer, more lingering lunches they usually favour the Rib Room in the Sloane Street’s Jumeira Carlton Tower, owned by the grandees of Dubai , or China Tang in the dark bowels of the Dorchester.

Anyone who belongs to one of the grand clubs of Pall Mall will use that to impress their ghost, likewise the showier clubs of Mayfair and Soho, which are frequented more often by the Europeans, although now of course the rich of all nations mingle like they are one tight-knit tribe. Clubs actually make ideal venues for interviewing if you are not at the interviewee’s home, being quiet and full of comfortable chairs and people eager to keep you supplied with coffee and biscuits.

But what happens once you have been seduced into signing the confidentiality contracts and the money has pinged in from strangely named foreign accounts? How do you avoid being one of the ghosts who falls out with the client?

The first thing is to have no expectations of receiving any recognition at all for the writing of the book should it come to fruition. If they choose to acknowledge you on the cover, or somewhere more discreet inside, that is very useful for the winning of future assignments, but it is not to be expected. You can expect that they will entertain you royally while they are telling you their secrets, but once the job is over so is your relationship.

If you have the sort of temperament that suits the ghosting process you will welcome that brevity because what you wanted was an interesting story, not a new best friend. By the time the book is finished you will be itching to get started on the next one, which will almost certainly be about something completely different, carrying you up a new learning curve.

You don’t argue with them or challenge their statements, however repulsive you may find them personally, unless they are contradicting themselves or saying something that either the publishers or the eventual readers are going to find hard to swallow. You want to encourage them to open up and tell you more, not clam up and become defensive. You want them to lose their inhibitions and talk freely so that you can gain access to what they really think, thereby forming better ideas of what might really have happened in their pasts.

You are producing the book that they would write if they could, so any views expressed within it are theirs and not yours. You are writing in their voices, taking on their characters, like a playwright putting words into the mouths of her characters, pleading their case for them more eloquently than they are able to do for themselves, like a barrister would do for them were they to find themselves in court. 

Once a project is up and running I hang around them like Charles Ryder hung around Sebastian Flyte, or Nick Carraway hung around Jay Gatsby, getting as much material on tape as possible while at the same time imbibing their voices so that I will be able to reproduce them on the page, inventing dialogue and descriptions where necessary while staying in their character.

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Tony Schwartz did a brilliant job for Donald Trump. The book was a number one best seller for weeks on end and brought the man’s name before a far wider public than would ever have heard of him when he was just another New York property developer.  The book did all the things that a ghosted autobiography is meant to do for the author, raising his profile to a level where he was offered a role in a major reality television show. At that stage Mr Schwartz would have been pleased to know that his book had helped his client’s career. When it started to look as if Mr Trump’s finger was heading for the nuclear button, however, Mr Schwartz panicked and spoke up to say that in his opinion, having spent eighteen months in the man’s company, this was not a good idea. (I have never felt the need to spend more than a few days with any client, but I believe Mr Trump has an exceptionally short attention span when being interviewed and it took Mr Schwartz that long to get enough material to make up a full length book).

It is quite possible that without Mr Schwartz’s help, Mr Trump would not have got to the Oval Office and I can see why Mr Schwartz may find that thought troubling in the small hours of the morning.

Mr Trump appears to genuinely believe that he actually wrote every word himself. Now that we all know a little more about the latest American President it seems unlikely that that is the case, but highly likely that he might believe it to be so. Some clients do end up believing they wrote their own books, but most are extremely intelligent people who remember with great accuracy that they did a bit of talking and the ghost then came back to them with a full-length manuscript. The majority are extremely grateful to be spared having to write 80,000 words themselves since they nearly always have far more interesting things to do, like run countries or corporations, star in Hollywood movies or play their songs to arenas filled with tens of thousands of adoring fans.

I receive two or three enquiries a day for ghosting services. I can only write three or four books a year so I am looking for stories that interest me, subjects that I want to find out about and places that I have never been to. Is the person interesting enough for me to want to “be” them for a few months? Will their story work in book form? If they pass those tests then I need to make a judgement as to whether I will be able to pay my grocery bills while writing. Will the author be paying a fee or will we be able to find a publisher to pay enough to satisfy us both during the writing process? If we are going to go looking for a publisher, will we need to recruit a literary agent to help us in that quest or will we be able to pull it off on our own?

Quite often the rich and powerful lose interest in the book half way through, diverted by a billion dollar takeover, overthrown in a political coup or simply distracted by a new yacht or a new life partner. The ghost must be philosophical in such cases and have another client waiting in the wings to move on to. There is no point trying to keep a project going once the main protagonist has lost interest.

Sometimes, when confronted with their words in black and white, the clients panic and say that they will have to make lots of changes. The ghost must stay calm and assure them that he will be delighted for them to make any changes they like. Most have no more appetite for editing than they did for writing in the first place, so the manuscript will usually come back with a few token scribbles in the margins, which can be incorporated into the body of the text in a few hours.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I only work for the rich and powerful, in fact in the past it has been the exact opposite, when I was writing for the otherwise disenfranchised. Travelling all over the world I worked with victims of enforced marriages in North Africa and the Middle East, sex workers in the Far East, orphans in war-torn areas like Croatia and dictatorships like Romania, victims of crimes and abused children everywhere. But so absorbed was I in the work I quite forgot to equip myself with an adequate pension and so now find it harder to justify writing entire books for the sorts of advances that most publishers want to pay, and that is why I go looking for patrons in much the same way that artists have been doing for centuries.

And so I accept gratefully the offers of fine wine and fine dining, the invitations to fine homes and fine hotels, as I play the parts that are assigned to me.

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Christmas Under A Tropical Sun: Dipika Mukherjee examines Christmas in literature from a warm and sunny place

As I write this post from Malaysia, under a tropical sun, I am struck by how universal the festivities of Christmas are, even in our modern fractured world. In this majority-Muslim country, Christmas is celebrated with Open Houses as Christian families open their doors for non-Christian friends and family.  There is no snow, there is food, there is feasting...and the emphasis is on the ties of friendship and family. 
A green Christmas in the tropics is a warm Christmas indeed.
Two years ago, I read a story by the Godden sisters, recounting five years of their childhood spent in the Indian village of Narayanganj, during World War I. 
I was enchanted. Jon and Rumer Godden wrote Two Under the Indian Sun story as adults, but it is infused with the childhood wonder and daily astonishment of life in British India. This book was published in the US in 1966 by Knopf/Viking and is a delightful retelling of a childhood in India by two accomplished writers.
And nowhere is the magic more apparent than in their retelling of the Christmas in Narayanganj.
The Christmas scene begins with the sisters hunting for presents which are hidden in the garden --"parcels would be up trees, in the middle of bushes, behind bamboos, under flower pots, tied to the swing"-- wrapped in plain brown paper with a string. The presents are simple and home-made, and the joy is in the "game" of Christmas, rather than strict religious injunctions.
Then comes the giving of dollies, where the "dolli" is not a doll but from the Indian word dali, meaning an offering or a gift. Christmas is presented as an "orgy of wonder" for the two British girls as the Indians came "to call personally and make his salaams", and the rank and honour of the persons being saluted was coded in the mannerisms and the clothes (silk achkans vs sock suspenders). The scene is  described in gorgeous detail as a visitors flock in bearing gifts. The two girls have to then re-gift everything to the neighbourhood children, no matter how tempted they are to hoard their gifts; when the girls resist, this turns into a learning moment: "As well as a time for getting, Christmas is a time for giving," said Mam, and "You must not only learn to give, you must love giving".
This Christmas scene is especially interesting as it is filtered through the lens of American egalitarianism, some two decades after Indian independence. Much of the giving and receiving was coded in the power dynamics of colonialism, and the two writers acknowledge the inequity of the times.
Now, in post-colonial Malaysia, my Christmas is about spicy prawn sambal and rice and Christmas cake, against a backdrop of a festive Christmas tree. There is still food and feasting and family, and anyone who is a friend is invited to a communal table. 
Not a White Christmas in any sense, but a very Green Christmas indeed...Happy holidays from the tropics!

Dipika Mukherjee's second novel, Shambala Junction, won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016). She founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia and has edited four anthologies on Southeast Asian fiction.

Monday, 25 December 2017

A Bigly Christmas 2017 to You - by Susan Price


Christmas Day 2017.

Joy to all women, children and men in this season of pantomimes and circuses.

We seem to be living through a seven-ringed conflation of the two. 

Ho, ho, ho ho. 

Overseeing it all we have our very own grey Mother Goose and what a gigantic goose she is. Off she goes to church, the Vicar's daughter, in her Dolce and Gabbana shoes costing £600 while her government cheerfully cuts and delays benefits to the disabled and barely-managing across the land. Ho ho ho.

Behind her, the stage is filled with mugging, smirking, prat-falling clowns tumbling from Stage Right and, as ever, these clowns aren't remotely funny... But they are bigly sleazy, scary and sinister.

You have to appreciate the sheer audacity of the humour. Shiny, smarmy 'Calm down, dear,' Clown Cameron completely misjudges his referendum, trips over it and falls smack on his face. But up he skips, to announce that he will see the negotiations with the EU through to the end. Then, quick as a blown raspberry -- such timing! -- he's running off-stage to hide in his £25,000 'shepherd's hut' that's never seen a sheep (apart from him) and never will. Oh, the laughter at his slippery, cowardly, insulting antics! -- I thought it would never start.

The clowns run and prat-fall about the stage for a while and then Mother Goose comes from the church to lead them. How can she possibly top Cameron's turn? She manages it with a superb piece of surprise business. Leading forward Bozo the Buffoon, she makes him foreign secretary.

The whole theatre rocks with disbelief. Oh no, she can't --

Bozo Buffoono, the 'highly educated Eton classicist' representing us to other nations? No, no! Oh no, she can't!

But oh, yes, she can, she does! What can possibly go wrong? Hilarity must ensue.

Buffoono is celebrated for his comic skits, like the famous one where he plotted and planned to push Clown Cameron off the top spot by lying himself Tory Blue in the face while pretending to be a 'Leaver.' He managed the difficult trick of never allowing even the tiniest, loneliest thought to cross the great echoing, empty chambers of his Eton educated head about what he was going to do if 'Leave' should actually win.

After all, what highly Eton educated classicist career-politician could ever have been expected to see that possibility coming? It was a 50/50 chance -- how could a highly Eton educated classicist career-politician with advisors coming out of his ears possibly be expected to calculate difficult odds like those? (Though you would have thought the Russians might have mentioned to him that, for their money, Leave was going to win.)

And so we were were treated to the wonderfully comic sight of Buffoono running around Westminster, trying to avoid reporters while also trying not to think of how he was actually going to untangle the UK from all the treaties and agreements made with the twenty-seven different countries of the EU.

Give us one of your famous jokes, eh, Buffoono? How about a bit of speechifying on a subject that you haven't bothered to research or learn or rehearse? Such is your Eton-educated highly intelligent respect for us, your unfortunate audience.

Original artwork, copyright Andrew Price

You might think antics so ridiculous couldn't be topped, but after the Leave win, Buffoono was joined by his comedy side-kick, Gove-o, the other half of the Loathsome Brothers, who at once comically stabbed him in the front. This bit of slapstick allowed Mother Goose to take centre-stage in her £600 shoes and sing, 'Strong and Stable.' Interminably. Where's the Fat Lady when you need her?

Mother Goose can't match the rough and tumble of the Brothers Loathsome -- but with a nice echo of Clown Cameron's theme, she astutely called for a General Election, thus demonstrating that she matched her predecessor in keen political nouse and understanding of the country she pretends to govern. In one move, she lost the Tories their majority. Ho ho ho. It seemed we might be rid of them.

But in one of the transformation scenes so beloved of pantomime, Mother Goose was able to make a Magic Money Tree grow before our wondering eyes. One of those Magic Money Trees she'd told us didn't exist almost as often as she told us her government was strong and stable. From this glittering tree, she plucked a billion juicy bribes to pay for the shoring up of her half-derelict house with planks from the DUP. Hooray!
And also: Ho, ho, ho.

But what is this? The leader of the DUPpies, Arlene, steps from behind the magic money tree. She pockets the dosh with one hand but, with a big wink to the audience, uses the other hand to present  Mother Goose with a big parcel. A big ticking parcel. What will come of that, do you suppose, boys and girls?

Bozo the Buffoon claimed centre-stage again, and found a dozen different ways to embarrass the UK and insult the funny foreigners that Mother Goose hopes to trade with after we crash out of the EU without a deal.

Perhaps most memorably he magically increased a British citzen's jail sentence in Iran by not bothering to get his facts straight in that bumbling way of his that is so charming and that we all so love. "Boris is Boris," Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe no doubt chuckled to herself, as she faced another ten years of separation from her family, in an Iran jail.

Another of the clowns, Dimbo Davis, most amusingly can't seem to get a grip on the first thing that he's supposed to be doing. He fumbles and drops things and spins round and slaps the EU with a plank, spills whitewash everywhere and ran on the spot for 18 months, getting nowhere.

Heckling voices from the audience demand to know if he and his department have looked into what the effects might be of leaving the EU. Of COURSE they have, he replies. They have drawn up a very detailed analysis. An excruciatingly detailed one. A biglier, more detailed one than anybody in the audience could have drawn up and that's the truth!

Well, can we have a look at it then? -- In a minute. In fact, after we've left the EU, THEN we can have a look.

But we want to look at it now! Before we leave. So we can see what might happen if we do, and if it might be a better idea to stay.

Oh, says Dimbo Davis. Did I say there was a detailed analysis? Sorry! There isn't!

It's behind you! shout the audience.

Dimbo spins round. "Oh no, it isn't!" he shouts.

"Oh yes it is! -- It must be, surely?"

It turns out that in eighteen months Dimbo Davis and his 'Brexit' department have done nothing -- NOTHING -- to prepare for what comes next. And consistently lied about it to Parliament. And yet escapes from the sack quicker than Houdini. And although contemptible, is somehow not in contempt of Parliament.

It's such a joy being governed by a pantomime troupe.

In December, the pantomime month, the panto understandably ups its pace, with wheels falling off and spinning in all directions.

The strange orange-wigged clown in the Uncle Sam costume who hilariously calls himself 'President of the United States' retweeted a bit of English right-wing nutters' propaganda, apparently believing it and giving it publicity. What a brilliant piece of surreal comedy! Just imagine the real President of the United States doing such a thing!

When Mother Goose protested that 'The President' really shouldn't have done this, 'Prez' tweeted his reply to the wrong Theresa May. One with only 6 followers. An understandable mistake. How likely is it that there is more than one woman the whole of the UK named Theresa May?

When his reply was finally retweeted to the real Treeza, it was to tell her to mind her own business. Because, as PM of the UK -- albeit, a terrible one -- the fomenting of unrest among her citizens is in no way her business. Not in the Prez's zany world, anyway.

Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln aren't spinning in their graves -- they're trying to tunnel to Australia.

Meanwhile there were joyful cheers because -- at last! -- Mother Goose and the Europeans had talked and talked so much that, finally, they could begin talks. At last it was all going to happen! Buffoono Boris was going to be crowned king!

And then -- KA-boooom! Remember that big ticking parcel given to trusting Mother Goose by DUPpie Arlene? It exploded! Phew! I didn't see that coming, did you?

All the clowns fall flat on their arses with their ruffs in tatters round their ears.

So all of May's donkeys and all of May's men had to stay up all night, sticking everything back together again. The UK and the EU were all stuck back together so they looked exactly the same as they did before -- only Britain had to pay a great deal of money for breaking it.

No sooner was this agreed than Dimbo stood up and told everyone that sticking things back together again was only 'a statement of intent' and didn't really mean anything.

"Excuse us," the Irish shouted across the sea. "It means rather a lot to us, if you don't mind." And, over in Europe, everyone agreed that nothing the UK said could be trusted. Why, they asked each other, why, oh why did they put the thickest man in all of Britain in charge of steering the ship?

And then a bunch of Tories, who had been snivelling in a corner, finally found the courage to stand up to Mother Goose and the Loathsome Brothers and Dimbo (though some of them weren't quite brave enough and ran away at the last minute.) "We don't like this game," they said. "We don't think you're playing by the rules."

But on the game goes anyway. Westminster has, in the past, seen plenty of two-faced crooks, liars, embezzlers, swindlers and cheats. But has there ever been such a bunch of *noggin-headed, incompetent, goose-saddling*, bed-swerving*, cumber-grounding* malkins*?

I would rather be governed by these two.

Merry Christmas, folks. And a Prosperous New Year. Ho ho bloody ho.

And the Ghost World Sequence beginning with the Carnegie winning Ghost Drum
Ghost Drum   

*noggin-headed -- a head as large and empty as an empty noggin, or barrel. Or, a head filled with intoxicating liquid: one who has booze on the brain and therefore not someone you want to entrust with any task.

*goose-saddling -- performing an action which is an utter waste of time and effort.

 *bed-swerving -- swerving from bed to bed. 'Bed-surfing' if you like. A philandering, faithless adulterer.

*cumber-grounding -- One who encumbers the ground they stand on, to no good purpose.

*malkins -- pronounced 'mawkin': a fool, a simpleton.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

May we all have the Christmas that we need. Jo Carroll

Well, if it’s not bought, wrapped, or posted by now it never will be. For the whole of the ‘Christian’ world is shutting down for a few days to celebrate Christmas. (The inverted comma reflects my own view that this now bears little relation to any religious festival and is now a homage to capitalism.)

For months, the press and social media have been full of stuff we must buy. Aunt Nellie and Uncle Jack will be bereft if you fail to spend a week’s wages on something that will sit at the back of a cupboard until they get round to taking it to the charity shop. No home is complete without emptying the supermarket of mince pies and sausage rolls and sprouts. You thought you could re-use last year’s tinsel? Pah! Flashing fairy lights are essential.

And yet, as the Big Day approaches, the tone of newspapers changes. We now have to learn how to spend a whole day with Aunt Nellie and Uncle Jack (who will fart unmercifully after a sprout or two) and not want to slap them. Families, we are told, are hard work - and a whole day in each others’ company can strain the most loving of relationships. We must be kind to ourselves and others. And if we need to overdose on chocolate to get through, then that’s fine.

Think you can sit back once the whole thing is done and dusted? Just wait till the New Year - that’s when we will be bombarded with advice about how to lose all the weight we put on eating the mince pies and sausage rolls (and chocolate), without which our Christmas would have failed. We will, we are told, emerge from the festivities as slobs and it will be time to get a grip of ourselves again.

We’re writers. Other writers are churning out this stuff and, presumably, believe it. And so here is my writerly contribution to Christmas: 

None of this is compulsory. You can give Aunt Nellie and Uncle Jack nothing but a big kiss and a box of biscuits (no sprouts) - and nothing terrible happens. You don’t even have to like mince pies - so what! You love your family and a whole day spent together is one to treasure. You don’t have to eat yourself into oblivion and crawl into the New Year with barely the energy to make it to a bus stop.

I wish you all the Christmas that is right for you. And a 2018 that is peaceful for us all.

(And if you want to read about my Nepali Christmas, when I ate oranges and lentils all day, it’s in Over the Hill and Far Away. Follow the books links on my website: )

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas from Lev Butts

It's the most wonderful time of the year when, baby, it's cold outside, and Jack Frost is nipping at your nose. Yep, it's Christmas, Yuletide, Winter Solstice. And what better way to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, champion of the poor and oppressed, than engaging in a heartwarming celebration of gross materialism?

With that in mind, I am here to give you a couple of last minute gift ideas for that writer in your life.

1. Book Cover Design Secrets You Can Use to Sell More Books by Derek Murphy 

Writers love books, or at least they should, otherwise, they are in the wrong business. Here's a book about book design for independent writers. There are a plethora of books out there about writing, but not as many about designing covers, which is a shame, because despite adages about judging books and covers, a well designed cover can be the major selling point for an author, especially for readers unfamiliar with the author's work. I bought my first Neil Gaiman book not because of his delightful use of prose, but because his cover for Neverwhere immediately got my attention and drew me in:

Yes, I read the opening pages first and fell in love with the prose, but I never would have looked if not for that cover.

And Derek Murphy is no fly-by-night charlatan either. He has a Ph.D. in literature and is the author of several young adult sci-fi and dark fantasy novels in addition to his books on self-publishing and marketing.

The book is only $2.99 on Kindle.

2. Arc Customizable Notebooks

If you know a writer who likes to write longhand first drafts, this is the gift for them. Several of my friends fill notebooks upon notebooks with their plot notes, research, and early drafts. This one, though, is, as its name suggests, customizable. You can add paper as you need it, lined or blank or a combination. You can choose a plastic or leather cover. You can put in dividers with or without pockets. And most important of all, they're relatively cheap for their high quality, starting at $7.99.

3. Scrivener

If your writer is more virtual than manual, Scrivener is a kind of electronic notebook with a kick. As it says on its website

Scrivener puts everything you need for structuring, writing and editing long documents at your fingertips. On the left of the window, the ‘binder’ allows you to navigate between the different parts of your manuscript, your notes, and research materials, with ease. Break your text into pieces as small or large as you want – so you can forget wrestling with one long document. Restructuring your draft is as simple as drag and drop. Select a single document to edit a section of your manuscript in isolation, or use ‘Scrivenings’ mode to work on multiple sections as though they were one: Scrivener makes it easy to switch between focusing on the details and stepping back to get a wider view of your composition.
You can keep all kinds of research together, pictures, article, useful quotes, under one section for ease of retrieval. Essentially, it is everything you need to craft a new book: Word Processor, notebook, Pinterest. And it works over various platforms: desktop, smart phone, and tablet in both PC and mac.

It's a bit pricey: about $45.00, but there is a free trial and an educator discount.

4. Bourbon and Cookies

Because who doesn't like Bourbon and cookies.

Make mine Maker's Mark and Macadamia.

So that's it. Those are my best bets this year for writerly Christmas presents.

Better hurry: You have two days left.

You could also get them this, but I'm sure they already have it.

Friday, 22 December 2017

Last posting days? Reports of the death of the Christmas card are premature according to Ali Bacon

Remember how books ‘as we know them’ were on their way out? I seem to remember a few years ago the same kind of prediction was going on around Christmas cards: rising postage, conservation, e-alternatives and a multi-faith society made it look like the white bendy things were heading for oblivion and I think that was a reasonable prediction. I culled my list, signed up for an e-card service and found old friends turning up in my inbox rather than on my door-mat. I can’t deny a pang of conscience for however many thousands of jobs relied on their production and design and the possible loss to charity coffers (how many of us make that donation we really mean to?) but that was balanced out by the feel-good factor of thrift and eco-friendliness.

Well here we are a few years on and I glimpse a small revival of the robin and reindeer cheeriness. Cost of postage it has to be said is a factor and I’m surprised (in a good way) that my children are now asking for addresses of cousins and aunts to send cards to those we would have met up with when they were younger. As for our current collection, it may not be huge but it’s more varied than ever before, encompassing everything from bijoux to bland to downright bolshie.  And if Mr McSproutface isn’t to everyone’s taste, it’s part of a hand-written limited edition. What can be better than that? At a local Christmas craft market I noticed similarly bespoke cards - from minimalist to downright mad - were changing hands in numbers for £2 a time. A far cry from haggling over the cost of a packet of 10.

So are Christmas cards on the up? I think not exactly, but maybe there is a change of direction. There has always been an argument about whether cards are for people you see all the time and want to share a greeting with, or those whom you never contact except at Christmas. I think my list is swinging to the former. While my list of ‘only Christmas’  is getting shorter (because there is always e-mail) I have given cards with pleasure to those who are ‘closer’, whether they are near or far geographically. Which ties in I suppose with the idea of fewer cards but in some case a bigger spend. I hope this also makes me okay with the trees and artisan card-makers.

Finally, amongst the usual Santa suspects, here is a little gem from a bygone age which was sent to me through the post from a collector friend.  I don’t know its exact origins but it is small, perfectly formed and has a rhyme which I have decided to make my Christmas message to the world this year.

 Though Wintry winds blow cold,

And chilling blasts an aspect drear impart,

Whate'er the storms of dull December hold,

Let naught assail the Summer of thy heart

I'll drink to that. Happy Christmas!

Ali Bacon's next book, set in Victorian Edinburgh, is about art and science, love and loss, friendship and photography. In the Blink of an Eye will be published in Spring 2018 by Linen Press.