Monday, 31 October 2016

Snowdon Safari - Guest Post by Jan Ruth

The summit of Drum, a small peak nestled in the Carneddau range of Snowdonia, North Wales, can be an inhospitable, dangerous place. On day two of the annual pony-gathering, a heavy shroud of fog obscured the dense landmass to within a few feet. Someone once said, ‘It’s the centuries of men’s hands on the stones that puts the heart into a place.’ The beating heart of the Carneddau for me, has to be the wild ponies, and they were the reason I found myself on top of a bleak mountain in the Welsh hills in November. Why? I was writing Palomino Sky and the trip was partly for research reasons, partly for personal interest.

The ponies of the Carneddau have access to some 27,000 acres, and there are less than 200 of them out there… somewhere. Ancestors would likely have used dogs and followed on horseback but modern times dictate the use of quad bikes and scramblers. The rest of us walked, across a vast mattress of sodden heather. Within the hour though, the sun pierced through the fog and it dispersed like skeins of gossamer, revealing the full majesty of the Welsh hills and the Irish Sea. This dramatic landscape marches towards the foothills of Snowdon in one direction, and in the other falls in a crumpled stone-hewn scree to the west coast. It is both magical, and awe-inspiring. Add into this mix the sound of drumming hooves and you can feel the beating heart of this place match your own. Too whimsical? Probably, but the sight of these spirited ponies galloping across the heather, manes and tails flying; is a hugely emotional sight.

The romance and the beauty of these hills is well documented, but the hill farmers are struggling to find definition in an increasingly faster, more cosmopolitan world. For local farmer Gareth Wyn Jones, there are 350 years of family history behind his passion for the hills, the ponies and this way of life. Scattered across these hillsides the remains of farming settlements, Roman forts and the slate industry epitomize the hardships, the triumphs and the disasters – but this history is part of our roots and part of what defines us. I love the honesty of this way of life, but like millions of other people feel powerless to nurture it when something fails to protect those issues which are out of our control. In the past – and we have to acknowledge our farmers have been through desperate times – the ponies have been collected off the mountain and herded into meat wagons. Now though, if something doesn’t bring financial reward, the worth of it is compromised – which is pretty sad, when you think that Jones is now fighting the red tape with DNA proof to achieve rare-breed status; so I feel justified to feel both whimsical and passionate about the ponies fate.

The pony-gathering attracts those interested in such matters, primarily concerned for the welfare of these animals, left to survive on their own wits through sometimes intolerable winter conditions. The frail are found grazing on less harsh, lower pastures but this farming-out is in itself a voluntary exercise. The remainder are checked over and returned to the hill.

For the uninformed, the native Welsh Mountain pony is a larger, more elegant version of the Shetland. The Shetland was epitomized by Thelwell – short legs, profuse mane and tail and as stubborn as they were fiery, depending on mood and opportunity. The seven Mountain and Moorland ponies of Great Britain were considered to be the hardy ground stock of children’s riding ponies the world over and crossed with larger, finer breeds to produce, well, anything you wished for. The hardiness from surviving in such adverse conditions makes this pony unique.

Emotional bonds have a value of their own which is difficult to define. I’ve been around horses for 50 years – although I wasn’t born into a situation which easily accommodated them. Every Saturday, I would cycle fifteen miles with my father to have a riding lesson on a Welsh Mountain pony called Merrylegs. In the early sixties we were taught to stay on by clamping a threepenny-bit between our knees and the saddle. If it was still there after an hour, we got to keep it. Thankfully, gripping-on is no longer considered good practice! Ironic too, that the three-penny bit is extinct. As a child around ponies, I learnt how everything was connected by a purpose and why even small things should be respected, because there’s a reason they are there. (Sharing this landscape with several thousand head of sheep impacts on the benefits of cross-grazing, the ponies eat the vegetation the sheep won’t and vice-versa, the parasites which develop in sheep are inhibited by the ponies and vice-versa.)

I learnt how to give and take, I learnt that physical knocks or disabilities were not a barrier to success. My friend at the time – at age ten – had one-and-a-bit-arms. One side of the reins would be up round an amputated stump, but she was a more effective rider than I. I learnt respect and humility, and all those invisible things we maybe cannot quantify or explain, but we know are there. But above all, I learnt to love the hills.

Words by Jan Ruth, photography by Sandra Roberts.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Squared Circle Blues - Guest Post by Matt Posner

I want to thank Debbie Bennett for giving me an opportunity to appear on her blog. I can't believe it was as long ago as 2011 that she appeared on my site to promote her first thriller, Hamelin's Child. She's written so many since then. You can see that old interview here:  (BTW, she hasn't aged a day, it appears. Me, on t'other hand…)

I'm here today to tell you about Squared Circle Blues, my new novel about professional wrestling in the 1980s.

In a word -- why?

I'm not a present or former professional wrestler. I'm a writer, I'm a teacher -- I'm not even athletic. But even with its outlaw reputation, and even with the widespread belief that it is fake, professional wrestling, in a way, taught me as much about manhood as any other sport every could.

First of all, professional wrestling isn't fake. A better word would be FIXED. The wrestlers know the outcome and work toward it, putting on a show as they go. Yes, they use storylines about good and evil, concocted by teams of retired wrestlers and sometimes very young writers, to provoke the crowd. Yes, they know special ways to fall, and they cooperate acrobatically to avoid seriously injuring each other. But they slap and punch and kick and twist and throw each other for real. It's less like that these days than it used to be, maybe, but back in the 1970s, in the 1980s, wrestlers really beat the hell out of each other. Why? They did it because they liked to hand out punishment and sometimes liked to take it. They were tough, and they tested themselves as athletes, performers, and fighters. A "fake" professional wrestler from that era, before the rise of MMA in the 90s, would be more than a match for any other professional athlete in a confrontation. They were real-life superheroes; they worked hard physical jobs despite injuries that would cripple less physical men. They had big bodies, big voices, and big personalities, and as on-screen characters, they had big ambitions and big plans.

No, that's not the kind of man I am myself, but I wish I could be. Even as cooperating performers, professional wrestlers of the time served as role models of assertiveness and aggression, things that have never come naturally to me. They were also role models for being publicly, unreservedly passionate -- feeling it, saying it, and meaning it. As a teenager, I watched them to learn how to communicate emotion; they were an antidote to shyness. They were amazingly strong on screen: men who didn't back down, in the case of the heroes, or in the case of the villains, men who knew how to escape and come back to fight another time with a new plan.

Squared Circle Blues follows the life stories of a number of men like this, in my completely fictional rendition of the American 1980s territorial wrestling system. It's a story of a fall and rise, centered around the Maryland promotion of Matt Gash, a foul-mouthed, abusive businessman whose Baltimore-based promotion is set to collapse after the loss of its top star, King Snake MacEvoy (called Snake). As Gash struggles to pick up the pieces, Snake, on the surface an intimidating black wrestler, but actually a henpecked family man, moves to a corrupt New York promotion for more money and finds himself on the receiving end of abuse from bigoted locker room bullies and professional burial by his cynical new boss, Arcangelo Vito. Snake's battles to gain the respect of others and regain his self-respect alternate with the last-gasp efforts of the hostile and charmless Gash to reverse his promotion's fall.

The rawness and uncompromising language of Scorsese's Goodfellas meets the physicality and gamesmanship of 1980s professional wrestling.

I'm still not a professional wrestler, and never will be: but when you finish Squared Circle Blues, you'll wish you could be, just like I always have.

You can buy the eBook of Squared Circle Blues at all Amazon locations. A paperback should be ready before it's time to shop for Christmas…

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Thoughts on a new doc: N M Browne

Flowers and Prosecco from my sister!
I think I might have a Phd. I mean I’m not sure because I haven’t worn a weird hat or been given a certificate, but I have been congratulated – a lot. It’s been lovely. I’ve drunk Prosecco and people have said nice things and I have demurred. ‘It’s only in Creative Writing,’ I say, as if that makes it worth less, as if writing doesn’t matter and being creative is something to be embarrassed about. Why do I do that?
 OK, so am the kind of person who wouldn’t want to be in any club that had me as a member. I also tend to think that if I can do something then it has to be easy. I am in awe of people who can do the many things I can’t. I suppose that’s a personality thing but more than that I find myself colluding with the view that ‘soft’ subjects are for the intellectually feeble. I don’t argue when people talk of ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects, when they denigrate those things that can’t be measured, weighed and scientifically valued. What am I thinking? Why does it have to be one or the other? Respect for the sciences should not involve contempt for the arts. 
  I’m sure I’m not the only writer to have internalised this value system. I could blame the patriarchy I suppose (I am inclined to blame it for most things.) I can’t blame my actual father as he was an artist and valued creativity both in the abstract and in his children. I could blame my education where those of us who were academic were steered away from anything remotely practical or creative: clever people don’t make things; they just criticise the things other people have made. It’s certainly true that we often pay ‘consultants’ advisors, critics etc more than those who do the work. Those who are most highly regarded in our society rarely demean themselves by getting their hands dirty. Too often creativity is only valued if it yields large sums of money, and as we all know, the most lucrative work may or may not be the most creatively successful
   Perhaps as a society we are right to be wary of creativity. It is subversive, potentially radical, disruptive and challenging and exactly what we need right now. When the arts are under attack, when Classics, and Art History, Archaeology and Creative Writing are no longer available at ‘A’ level, when libraries are closing down and librarians sacked, maybe all of us practitioners, writers and artists, need to stand up for our subject and be prouder of what we do.

Another glass of Prosecco? Don’t mind it I do.

Friday, 28 October 2016


I'm about to order Jan Needle's: RUMP OF RUMP HALL - THE RISE OF RONALD T RUMP.  Having always loathed "THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS" (all the animals seemed to be middle-aged or elderly clubbish gentlemen - not my scene) I love Jan's satires, and know I'm going to enjoy this one.

Having said that, I do, accidentally, own a copy of one of  Kenneth Grahame's lesser-known works: THE GOLDEN AGE, first published in 1899, with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish (I believe he went on to produce biscuit tin lids which are now collectors' items). Here is Graham's lost childhood in idyllic English countryside.

In parts, it's a funny book, with small boys' fantasy games along with inscrutable aunts and amusing elderly gents, but it's also sad, full of nostalgia for a world that was rapidly vanishing, and as with everything written around that period and later, there's the shadow of the First World War just around the corner - impossible, with hindsight, to read this stuff and not be aware of that horrendous ghost in the room. My edition is possibly valuable, and will soon go to Oxfam to help the victims of newer wars, because the one that was supposed to end them all never succeeded in doing so.

I've been having a private bookfest recently - meant to go to the film of "THE GIRL ON A TRAIN", then decided to read the book first, so did (Kindle version), after which the film became redundant. It's certainly a page-turner, kidnapping hours of my time, and causing my Kindle to run out of charge about halfway through, but not a book I'd wish to re-visit. For years, I've been a fan of the late Ruth Rendell, because of the complexities of her plotting, but also for the depth of her psychological understanding of her characters, which I didn't find in this. I was also a bit perplexed by its title. The story involves three very adult women, so where was the girl? I suppose that "THE WOMAN ON THE TRAIN" mightn't have been so sexy, but if the story'd featured three men, would it have been called "THE BOY ON A TRAIN"? I think not.

I also read "THE CURIOUS TALE OF THE LADY CARABOO", Catherine Johnson's Young Adult novel based on the real story of an impoverished, mixed race girl who re-invents herself as a Javanese princess and fools a wealthy, and kindly, family into caring for her. In the book, Catherine's given her a satisfyingly happy ending. I think her historical life might have been quite different, but the concept of re-inventing yourself as something else is a very powerful one. There are shades of self-help theories in this - if you play the part of an exotic princess for long enough, you might become one. How do actors psychologically deal with 'becoming' a character and then morphing back into their real selves? How do fraudsters? Because in order to create a convincing lie, you have to, in some subtle way, also con yourself. 

There are people who choose to read nothing but non-fiction, because fiction's made up lies and fairytales. Writers invent characters, and the best of them become intimately involved with their creations and through them express things universal. There are uncomfortable links, though, in what we do, to the voices heard by schizophrenics, and to people with multiple personality disorders. At present, in developing my screenplay, I've been forced to delve deeply into the personalities of two girls (and yes, these two are young girls, rather than women) who don't actually exist - I made them up a long time ago. I have a close friend whose daughter suffers from schizophrenia, and the voices she hears are both 'real' and life-destroying. What did Joan of Arc hear that sent her, young and inexperienced, into battle? And what of those who are 'possessed' and then respond to exorcism? What very complex animals we are.

Lastly, I'm dipping into Jan Morris's exquisite book on Venice, which I go back to from time to time. If you don't know it, then you have a treat in store.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Education Courtesy of Madame Jo-Jo, Dr Dolittle and Tintin - Andrew Crofts

Now that all my children are through with their education I have been pondering on some of the decisions we made along the way for them, and on my own educational decisions, or lack of them. I'm not sure that any of the lessons which have proved most useful to me in life happened in classrooms.

My middle daughter needed to make a film as part of her media studies A level and asked if I had any ideas. I was at the time working on a book with the manager of an electro-pop act which had sold more than twenty million albums during the late eighties and nineties and I suggested that she should ask him if she could film an up-coming re-launch of the lead singer, who was also the manager’s partner, as he was releasing a solo album.

The first venue for the re-launch was to be Madame Jojo’s, an infamous nightclub in the heart of old Soho, which had become even more famous in the seventies when its owner, Paul Raymond, had turned it into a transvestite burlesque cabaret. Paul Raymond, like his Soho neighbour, Christina Foyle, had been one of the earliest London characters I had interviewed as a freelance journalist and I had retained an affectionate fascination for his seedy and glamorous little corner of the world ever since. There were rumours that by the time Raymond died his interests in Soho property had made him the richest man in England.

The pop singer’s manager, an exceptionally kind man, liked the idea of having a student film crew adding to the buzz of the launch night, but one question still remained; would the school authorities, not to mention the parents of the film crew, be happy to have these vulnerable young minds let loose in one of the most infamously sleazy night joints in the history of the West End?

Fortunately my daughter had allies amongst the teachers and the project was given the green light. Partly in my role as parent/guardian and partly as a tourist from the seventies, I said that I would come too.

The star’s name had worked its magic and the place was a heaving, sweating mass of bodies, almost exclusively male. The star himself was the sweatiest of all as he strutted his stuff on stage in a costume of leather and feathers. The students, enthralled at being allowed to step through a time warp into a real-life Rocky Horror Show, behaved like professionals, moving with their cameras between the audience and dressing rooms with perfect discretion. I slid to the bar at the back of the room and found myself a stool from which to watch with a cocktail.

It had been a long time since I had been to a transvestite bar. The last time had been in Papeete, on a trip to Tahiti while I was still in my twenties. (My art teacher at school had whetted my appetite for the South Pacific when talking about Paul Gauguin’s escape from civilisation to “paradise”).

I’d been working as a travel writer, a role that I was partly inspired to take on by Hugh Lofting’s “Dr Dolittle” books. In my memory the doctor and his animal friends would spin a globe and the doctor would stab blindly at it with his finger. Whatever point his finger fell upon they would then set out to find. Maybe that only happened once in the whole series, but the image became immovably wedged in my mind and was, metaphorically speaking, pretty much how I chose the places I wanted to visit. Later, when I fell under the spell of Byron and his alter ego in “Childe Harold”, the image of the lone traveller took on an even more intense romance. The portly, balding fantasy figure of John Dolittle had grown into a world-weary, dissipated young Byronic hero – or so I hoped.

Hergé’s adventures of Tintin also contributed to my urge to visit exotic foreign lands, his tales made all the more tempting by the fact that we were banned from reading them at prep school. The school authorities seemed to be under the impression that text mixed with pictures would be a hopelessly corrupting brew for our young minds, rendering us too idle ever to read solid blocks of text again. It’s hard to imagine what those teachers would think of today’s social media and entertainment mix, where everything comes in bite-sized pieces and usually in video or abbreviated text form. 

I had lighted on the island of Tahiti while making my way from New Zealand to Hawaii, and had ended up staying in a gigantic resort hotel which seemed to cater almost solely for groups of pensioners getting on and off cruise liners. Even with the idyllic island scenery as a backdrop, this was not the paradise that I had imagined when day-dreaming my way through art lectures a dozen years before.

Drowning my sorrows in a pool bar I got talking to a Finnish businessman who suggested we take a “le truck”, the colourful and uncomfortable local mode of transport, into town. Wandering around town with my newly made friend we eventually ended the night in a transvestite bar. Lord Byron would undoubtedly have felt very at home lounging on those cushions, being entertained by the house cabaret, although I’m not at all sure what Dr Dolittle or Tintin would have made of it. By the next morning I had radically changed my view of the Finnish business community.

As the evening at Madame Jo-Jo’s wore on one of the teachers, who was youthful enough to look like he was part of the student team, wove his way over to me at the bar. He leaned close to be heard over the roar of the crowd and the throb of the speakers.

“Now this,” he said, “is what I call education.”

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Year of Just Being There: Dipika Mukherjee looks back at 2016

2016 has been a most brutal, capricious year.

On January 24th, my eldest brother Amitabha Mukerjee, a marathon swimmer and all-round sportsman, met with an accident while bicycling in Kanpur. He is Professor of Computer Science at IIT Kanpur with a luminous intelligence, but the impact severely damaged his brain stem.

I flew from Chicago to be with my family. Amit was airlifted to New Delhi after developing life-threatening bedsores, he was in a persistent coma, he developed septicemia at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, the doctors thought his MRI looked like Michael Schumacher's; everyone, including the doctors, said Pray for a miracle.

The days blurred; we held on to his every breath before releasing our own. My parents, at 90 and 80 years of age, were terrified that they wouldn’t live to see him ever open his eyes.

In March, I had to be in Malaysia to launch an anthology on Malaysian sports writing titled, “Champion Fellas”. And there, in Kuala Lumpur, I opened this astonishing email:

Sent: Saturday, March 5, 2016 11:50 PM
Subject: Virginia Prize

Dear Dipika

We are pleased to inform you that your entry ‘Shambala Junction’ has won this year’s Virginia Prize. There were around 100 entries from all over the world and the standard of entries was particularly high.

The judges were unanimous in selecting your novel which they felt dealt with a serious subject in an imaginative way. We liked the cast of characters, the humour and the east /west contrast.

I had been shortlisted and longlisted for prizes before, but this was my first major WIN, and that too for a novel that I had spent six years writing and trying to publish. I had parted ways with a literary agent from London in the process and become good friends with some agents from the US who had liked this book, but it had been turned down so often that I was stunned to finally have someone willing to not only publish this book, but also give it a prize.

Aurora Metro asked me for a few words to include for the announcement at the London Book Fair. This was meant to be a celebratory occasion, but all I could say was that this win was bittersweet, as my brother, who was still in a coma, would have been the most delighted at this win (Amit is also a poet and writer and has translated a wonderful collection of feminist Bengali women’s poetry, titled “The Unsevered Tongue”).

My literary world in 2016 continued to sparkle. In May, my novel Ode To Broken Things (Repeater) had its European launch in Amsterdam, followed by a US launch in Chicago. 

Yet for me, this has largely been a year of just being here, trapped in an unreal life, waiting for slow improvements and sudden reversals, my fingers on the pulse of a fickle universe. Amit now opens his eyes and uses his thumb to indicate yes and a forefinger for no, but he is in a vegetative state, unresponsive for long hours. For the last four months, I have been teaching Creative Writing in India and being with my natal family while my husband and two sons are in the US. There is no easy solution to this, there is no end in sight.

I am headed to the Richmond Literary Festival on Nov 23 for the book launch of Shambala Junction. Frances Spalding, CBE, will speak on Virginia Woolf; then they will award The Virginia Prize for Fiction to 'Shambala Junction'. This evening will also launch a campaign to erect a statue of Virginia Woolf in Richmond upon Thames. 

The occasion is joyous, and will no doubt be so. But there is something bigger than this which I am still praying for.