Jan Needle - Away with the angels
I once read a book by Gwyn Thomas called The World Cannot Hear You. I can’t for the life of me remember much about it (except that I loved it), but the title has always lurked in my mind. It seemed to me to epitomise the writer’s (or writers’) tragedy. You write, or read, these wonderful books, somebody reads them, or maybe not, and then they are gone. I used to drone on about Gerald Kersh, whom I thought was fantastic. Nobody else had ever heard of him, which I bitterly resented, more on his behalf than my own. Before and during World WarII he was enormous. And now…?
But sometimes, out of the blue, things get jogged. My phone rang not so long ago, and I was asked to take part in a Radio 4 programme about the writers considered to be in the van of the “new realism” in children’s books. My Mate Shofiq was mentioned, and Albeson and the Germans. Good God, I thought - I wrote them! And suddenly remembered being rung up by the headmaster of a school in Peckham to cancel my invitation to appear as keynote speaker in a conference on “Realism in Children’s Literature.” The teachers had had a vote, he told me, and had banned me from his school. My brand of realism was too realistic for them, as their brand of democracy was possibly too weird for me. My Mate Shofiq, the archetypal anti-racist book, was deemed to be racist because it dared to use the reality of racism among the young, rather than pretending it was just something not worth worrying about too much because only naughty persons did it. In this case, even if they’d wanted to, that small part of the Peckham world could not hear me, and that was that.
I agreed to take part in the radio programme, and took the train to London for the interview. It’s nice to visit the beating heart of democracy once in a while. I actually joined a meeting in the Houses of Parliament discussing the proposition that Britain should stop recruiting child soldiers. (We alone of Europe drag them in at 16, when we deem them mature enough to know exactly why they want to risk their lives for oil.) I was actually flying false colours, having published a filthy and appalling book about the army, called The Skinback Fusiliers, under the pen-name Unknown Soldier for personal reasons that no longer apply. It’s 86p on Kindle http://amzn.to/dPaeCb, but don’t show it to your auntie or the servants. It was a fun meeting, and I was actually able to tell Patrick Mercer, MP, that he was talking bollocks (as reported in the Guardian diary.)
Perhaps I'd better qualify that "filthy and appalling" tag. In fact, Michael Rosen called it "daring, immediate, painful, powerful." Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote: "gave me a feeling of inescapable immediacy. It's so vivid and the prose is so urgent and gripping. Envious. Bloody fantastic." Melvin Burgess wrote: "Next time you see an ad suggesting the armed forces are like some kind of adventure playground for men, think again." Naturally enough (!) my agent couldn't get a publisher to touch it with a bargepole.
The radio show, Comp Lit, was aired on September 8, and it was nice to hear that some of my old muckers, like Gene Kemp, Bob Leeson et al were still up and punching. But the process had set me thinking about getting the unheard heard. Skinback Fusiliers had been serialized for ten weeks on the OpenDemocracy website, people had put me wise to things like ebooks, and as one of my sons has the expertise, the die was cast. My Mate Shofiq and Albeson went up on Smashwords the day of the broadcast, with simple but effective high-speed covers he cooked up, and others are in the pipeline. All suitable for every known e-reader, so I'm assured.
Not just reprints, either. I’ve already written one to go up very soon – Dracula Lives – and I’m working on more. A big dirty thriller about the coming explosion in Britain's prisons, and a comedy kids' or two in case I'm getting morbid. A couple of friends are coming in from time to time, under the banner Skinback Books. Friends – I am a virtual publisher! My expert son, incidentally, who has a master's degree in technology and is currently unemployed (thank you Dave; and no, you're right, he didn't go to Eton) has helped several people with their electronic publishing, at far lower costs than they would have paid professionally. If you're interested, he can be contacted through me.
I don’t believe in fairies, though, and I’m quite prepared to find that nothing happens at all, just like in proper publishing. Maybe there are fairies, though, or even angels. The last known burning of a woman who was deemed "away with the fairies" in Ireland was, after all, as late as the early years of the twentieth century. Another book I'll be writing soon! In the meantime, I'm throwing caution to the winds, and putting out everything at 86p. Anything, as my old father used to have it, is better than boredom.