Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Young Mod's Forgotten Story - Part 3

It’s the 15th December, 1981. I’m on the train from Orpington to Victoria with a £4.50 ticket in my pocket to see The Jam at Hammersmith Palais. I’ve been buzzing since it came though the post. I’ve got that feeling, something's shifting. I’m adrift, looking for a place to be.

There's been no album this year. Three singles. In February That's Entertainment - an acoustic beat poem; a stream of consciousness lovesong for suburban kids as if Weller’s writing a Terry and Julie for our generation. ‘Getting a cab and travelling on buses, reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs’. The summer saw Brixton, Toxteth and St Pauls on fire. Not to be outdone, it even kicked off in Orpington High Street, which pretty much made it the usual Saturday night. The riots played out with Ghost Town on Top of The Pops. In June Funeral Pyre was released with its jagged edges and Weller’s lyrical directness, but it sounds like Buckler’s drum kit’s being kicked down a flight of stairs: not the Jam at their best. It made Absolute Beginners in October feel like a departure of sorts. A cleaner, looser sound, a raw dance feel and the message that 'love is in our hearts'. If it felt a bit like wishful thinking then, it certainly does when I get off the tube at Hammersmith. At the top of the escalator are a bunch of West London skins. I know this because: a) they’ve got no hair and b) they’re making a racket about being ‘West Lon-don’.

It looks like I’m about to run the gauntlet. I don’t fancy getting half way and having to do one back down the escalator, or taking a kicking at the top. But then there’s the echoes of faraway voices getting off a not so faraway train. We are the mods! sings out through the platforms and tunnels.

Tonight’s gig is meant to be like and old time soul revue according to Weller – only with CND banners to the fore and Rock Against Racism concessions stands. There’s a northern soul DJ playing records and the first band up is Reaction, just signed to Respond records. They’re a bit lightweight and the crowd let them know it. Then a new band comes on, indie girl scruffs Bananarama – the place goes wild when Fun Boy Three join them on stage for a last song conga to It Ain’t What You Do… The final support slot comes from Ruts DC. Still keeping on, but a shadow of the band they were since Malcolm Owen died last year.

There’s a couple of thousand people here tonight. It’s already hot. When the lights go down, I’m twenty feet from the front. The energy is raw. The crush is on. Weller, Foxton and Buckler take the stage. Strange Town. Un-fucking-believable. Fast, furious, loud with the lights reflecting off Weller’s Rickenbacker. I hang in there down the front for the first half dozen songs, then bale out after Down In The Tubestation which means I’m up top on the balcony looking down, the heat rising from a mass of bodies for Pretty Green, Set The House Ablaze and Little Boy Soldiers. There’s a handful of new songs tonight; one sticks in the memory. Weller says, ‘This next one is called A Town Called Malice’ and a little piece of vinyl history is made. The rest is a blur.

 ‘The Jam always made more sense live simply because their belief and passion could be given proper breathing space…’ Paulo Hewitt
I met a mod from Ilford on a Pontinental holiday in Torremolinos in August.  He clocked me from the Fred Perry and paisley scarf. One night there was a bunch of us sitting outside, discovering Bacardi and Coke at Costa Del Sol prices, chatting about music. My Ilford mate scoffed at the idea of The Jam as a mod band. Not worth a light, he reckoned, none of the new bands were. He claimed to be a soul man, a purist, a proper mod, Kinks and the Small Faces at an absolute push. I hoped he was at the Palais tonight: he might not have changed his mind, but he’d have seen it doesn’t matter.

The lights come up. It’s over. You file out. The sweat chills on your skin as you wait for the train. You’re shivering. Flight jacket’s soaked through. Desert boots wrecked. Ears ringing – they’ll be ringing for days. But this feeling, the euphoria, the energy of nights like these feels like it could last a lifetime. It’s the end of a year. But next year – next year I’ll get my scooter. Next year it’ll come good. After tonight, anything is possible.

 ‘They should have been shot down years ago! That they weren’t is almost entirely due to the fact that Paul Weller talks to ordinary people in an extraordinary voice but minus the usual deceit or malice … Weller’s humanism is as simple and direct as it if unaffected. He cares.’

Dave McCullough, Sounds

The Young Mod's Forgotten Story parts 1 & 2 were first posted in June 2011. Check the archive and feel free to drop me a line with your own mod memories NT.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

BOOK NEWS: Off The Record - a charity anthology

Off The Record - if the Ramones had been crime-writers

Today sees the Amazon launch of the kindle version of Off The Record: thirty-eight short stories based on classic song titles. The collection sees writers from both sides of the Atlantic coming together to produce an anthology of contemporary short stories, with all proceeds being donated to two Children's Literacy charities. In the UK it's the National Literacy Trust and in the US, Children's Literacy Initiative.

My contribution to the anthology is A New England.  The story offers a young policeman's perspective on the anti-BNP march, which took to the streets of Welling, south London in 1993, and which exposed the then government's clampdown on growing anti-fascist protests in the shadow of Stephen Lawrence's murder.

Off The Record is a snapshot of the indie e-book nation at the end of a year which has seen the medium cement its place in the market. Edited by Luca Veste, writer and blogger in chief at Guilty Conscience, it's a powerchord of punk-in-publishing spirit, which has found a natural home online and in e-book form.

It's like 38 members of the Ramones got together and wrote stories. If you don't like what you read, there's another one along in a minute.

Off The Record is avalable from Amazon as an e-book - currently at a knockdown £2.29. The paperback version should follow in a few days.

For the full rundown of the tunes, check Court Merrigan's YouTube OFF THE RECORD playlist.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

INTERVIEW: Mike Hodges - 'Watching The Wheels Come Off'

Mike Hodges: "Flash saved the world! Maybe now's the right time to make the sequel?" 

MIKE HODGES is best known as a film director, most notably, of the classic British crime movie Get Carter, which he adapted memorably for the screen from Ted Lewis’s Brit-noir novel Jack’s Return Home. He has written and directed widely for film, television, radio and theatre. His first novel, Watching The Wheels Come Off is a biting and bleakly satirical take on rampant self-interest and the culture it spawns, set in a fictional English seaside town. Here Hodges speaks about his own take on the novel and his inspiration for the story. He gives a no-holds barred perspective on the current state of politics and society and the attitudes of British publishers.

I began by asking him what was it about the ideas behind Watching the Wheels Come Off that prompted him to put pen to paper for his first novel?

“I’d been waiting for the finances to come together on a film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Mario and the Magician. As usual it was taking longer than expected: five years. Previously I’d been lucky enough to fill the gaps between feature films by writing and directing television, radio and theatre. This time I did what I'd always hoped I'd do: write a novel: Watching The Wheels Come Off is the result.”

Watching The Wheels Come Off is a tightly plotted, fast and exhilarating read. In Mark Miles it creates a fully functioning anti-hero for our times: a small beer PR consultant with an insatiable sexual appetite, ducking and diving through his own inadequacies as the fag end of his business throws him unceremoniously on his backside. Miles's troubles coincide with the arrival from the USA of the 'Performance Improvement Institute' tour.  It's deliciously and unashamedly allegorical. Where did Mike's central concept for the story and its characters come from?

“Anybody reading the novel will find it hard to believe it's central idea comes from a real occurrence. In 1973 I found myself in Los Angeles making my third feature film. It was a Warner Brothers’ production, The Terminal Man: a tough assignment because, not only was I adapting Michael Crichton’s novel, but I was also producing and directing it. As a consequence, I lived there for nearly a year. At some point I heard about a mind-bending weekend course during which the fee paying participants were inculcated with the supposed dynamics of leadership. In fact, it espoused a quasi-religious, ruthless form of capitalism: a sort of boot camp for unfettered exploitation. The props used in this process indicate the degree of depravity employed: a coffin, a crucifix, a man-sized cage, and finally a hangman’s rope. I investigated further: uncovering a recorded account of one case in which the course had turned seriously violent. On my return to England I was telling all this to a friend who, out of the blue, remembered the very same course coming to London. He recounted how a tabloid journalist had infiltrated it and blown the whistle. With that the American organisers disappeared: no one knows where. That’s where my novel starts.”

Like much of Hodges’ film work, the novel presents something of a bleak world view; especially striking in the evangelistic convictions of the staff of the ‘Performance Improvement Institute’ and their messianic leader Dr Herman P Temple. Would Mike say there is a direct link with any of his film work?

“I suppose there is. Get Carter is a bleak story laced with dark humour. The Terminal Man is just bleak. Pulp, the film I made between the two, is dark humour laced with a bleak story. Come to think of it so is Black Rainbow, which I wrote and directed in 1990. But it’s not surprising they are bleak as all four films have one element in common: an examination of the unremitting exploitation of humans by other humans. It’s a subject that, for reasons I don't totally understand, obsesses me. Now, with the bailout of the banks and the universal acceptance of a bogus bonus system for the bosses, exploitation is much on our minds. This time though it’s not third world workers being exploited; it’s us. More bizarrely, unlike those workers, we helped build and set the fiscal trap; then walked right into it. Wilful blindness is a term currently in vogue; and rather appropriately so. I must, however, point out that not all my work is dark and bleak. I also made Flash Gordon and, as its aficionados will know, Flash saved the world! Maybe now's the right time to make the sequel?”

The blackly comic punch of Watching The Wheels Come Off places Mike Hodges firmly in an English satirical tradition. Less a nod to the footlights or the Establishment club and Private Eye, this feels like it has a direct line to grubbier worlds of Swift and Hogarth and more recently a TV show like the League of Gentlemen. Does he see the novel in that context?

“The savagery of Swift and Hogarth is something I can only aspire to. A country so patently corrupt across all its institutions (while remaining stoically hypocritical about it) will always be a target deserving of swingeing satire. Besides, it’s a fantasy island worthy of Swift's imagination; with a class system that’s harder to eradicate than wet rot; on top of which sits a queen (sometimes seen riding in a golden coach) and a plethora of lords and ladies, barons and baronesses, dukes and duchesses, princes and princesses. No wonder the Christmas pantomime is an indelible part of the country's fabric. And let’s not forget Alice in Wonderland. Of course, it would have been more appropriate if Watching The Wheels Come Off had been published before Mrs Thatcher came to power. Back in 1973 (six years before that event) I never for one minute believed the values of that American course would hold sway in my own country. I was wrong. The “trickle down” constantly referred by the Iron Lady turned out to be mostly avarice. And with each drip the gap between rich and poor widened. Worse; the messiah we anxiously awaited to restore our spiritual health turned out to be Tony Blair. Enough said.”

The demands of script writing, particularly for a major feature film are notoriously tough to negotiate. Does Mike view his novel writing process as different from his script-writing/adapting processes?

“I found writing my novel much more exhilarating than any script. The sense of freedom was wondrous. It’s like painting or drawing; just you and your marks. So it's very different to screen writing. There are no budgetary considerations, no catering for the whims of producers and actors.”

Mike has spoken on a number of occasions about the state of the British publishing industry and how the mainstream rarely values innovators. It means that an aspiring novelist, even one with a stellar track record as a film writer and director, can come up against the equivalent of a private members club. What was his experience of the process?

“I’ve found the publishing world to be much like every other mini world in the UK (see above). But with one added ingredient: intellectual snobbery. The condescending chatter swirling around every Man Booker prize was encapsulated when this year's winner peevishly called it ‘posh bingo’ after his previous attempts to carry off the prize had failed. From my observations it's a world as incestuous as the gentlemen's clubs in Pall Mall. That’s par for the course here in Great Britain.”
That said, is he planning to write another novel?

“I certainly am!”

Watching The Wheels Come Off is the blackest and funniest novel I've read in a long time and the first time I've ever encountered donkey sex in print: a scene I won't be forgetting for a long time. Mike Hodges introduces his cast of grotesque and wonderfully seedy characters like the barker of a 21st century seaside freak-show. He hits his targets unerringly. As the novel moves towards its climax and the 'Performance Improvement Institute' circus rolls into town, the final act drags Mark Miles into his own performance improvement hell and in doing so, makes a boldly uncompromising satirical mark with its take on the relationship between the UK and USA and the shared religious/political zealotry and sycophancy of a society in decline. Above all, Watching The Wheels... is expertly crafted and a great read from one of our foremost writers and film-makers.

Watching The Wheels Come Off by Mike Hodges is published by Max Crime and is available from Amazon.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

I never met John Peel... but he did send me a postcard

Tomorrow night, Pete Townsend delivers the inaugural Peel lecture under the title: Can John Peelism survive the Internet?

There's something disconcerting about Peel being suffixed to anything so conformist as an ism. Almost a 'Yes, we're all individuals' moment. But if time really has changed how we view music and culture to such an extent that those of us who value the individual, the leftfield or just plain odd need an ism to unite us, then it might as well be Peelism.


You could call it downsizing, but that would imply an element of choice. Renting the box-room in a house in Elmstead Avenue, Wembley, October 1991 was entirely a financial necessity. By the time I’d wedged in a single bed and flimsily built wardrobe, that was it. Metropolitan and Jubilee Line trains clattered down the tracks at the bottom of the garden from around five in the morning to the last at gone midnight. There were few silent hours, even the small ones.

I’d spent the best part of the previous year blowing most of what cash I had on staying in my own flat. Idiotic perhaps. Hindsight made it clear: throwing three-quarters of my monthly earnings down a rent sized hole with the affable Noé Glasman (NW6 letting agent of repute) lining his pockets was a wrong ‘un. I moved to Wembley to pay off debts, save a little, make a new start and, although I didn’t know it then, to share a kind of chaos with three National Film School students. Allan from Grangemouth shared his appreciation of decent whisky, great British film, Nick Cave and stories of growing up next door to Liz Fraser from the Cocteau Twins. Eric from Neath gave me the makings of a great vegetarian chilli and Michael Nyman through his walls – always the same piece, or at least it sounded like it. Farai, recently arrived from an altogether different kind of chaos in Harare, was wild-eyed, nocturnal, and played my hi-fi – installed by spatial necessity in the living room – at impossible volumes, often when he came in at two, three and four in the morning. I had an early start and a daily commute to central London.

I was reading a lot of post-war British poetry, notably Philip Larkin. Probably not a great choice in retrospect. I was haunted by Mr Bleaney: “Bed, upright chair, sixty-watt bulb, no hook/Behind the door, no room for books or bags - ” Unsurprisingly, those themes of life lived for the most part in small, borrowed rooms found their way into my own writing. The world seemed to be imposing its own script with an insane soundtrack. I bought a Walkman/radio and some cheap earphones and on week nights, rediscovered the John Peel show, blocking out the other racket for sounds that I (or rather Peel) had chosen. Sometimes I would fall asleep before the end, drifting off to My Bloody Valentine or Ride or some anonymous house track, but always with Peel’s familiar, laconic tones granting free entry to a late night sonic sanctuary (p67 of the 1988 NME guide to journo-guff).
“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don't have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.’” John Peel.

Enrolling on an Open University Arts Foundation course that summer made perfect sense when I had time, space and at least some control over my surroundings. By October in Wembley, I was drafting essays by hand on trains, or at night, then typing them up in the office after work with the cleaners for company. The essays scored well and I started to think about applying for full-time courses. I plucked up courage and showed Allan some of the poems I’d written. He read them and passed them to a writer colleague. A few weeks later they came back with comments. In extremely polite, semi-constructive language, he told me they were rubbish. I read them again. He was right. I started again. I watched Allan and Eric – they were working jointly on a film project – and how they developed the script, nailing the story scene by scene, with each line of dialogue carefully nuanced, each word earning its place. I started work on a new poem, Electric Lullaby.

Things moved on and towards the end of 1998, the world, at least my little corner of it was a very different place. I had finished and passed a degree in English, Writing and Publishing in 1995 and if I had learned one thing, it was that I was not, and never would be, a poet. I’d given it a blast though, accumulated a huge stack of work in folders, files and notebooks in the process. Some poems were more ‘finished’ than others and I collected a few that I liked for longer than five minutes and worked on them, eventually deciding to self-publish a short collection under the title Electric Lullaby – although I pulled the poem itself at the last minute. Something about it not quite working in the cold light of day – a bit too up its own Larkinesque alley for its own good.  

I had fifty booklets printed, simply, cheaply and gave most away. I set about tracking down the addresses of people who had inspired me and sent them a copy. They felt like messages in bottles, sent out simply to see what might happen. I posted copies to, among others, Spike Milligan, Tony Benn and, of course, John Peel. Those are the ones I remember, because they all wrote back. Peel’s was the last response I received: a picture postcard of Ali Farka Toure which arrived early in 2000.

Publishing Electric Lullaby was an act born out of the notion that if you have a creative idea, it’s worth pursuing. It doesn’t have to be mainstream or have the edges smoothed off, or the surface noise cleaned away. If Peelism means anything, it means just do it.  So, as Pete Townsend delivers his keynote speech looking at the current state of music media tomorrow night, I’ll be grateful that John Peel was there to inspire me, and that he still does.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

BOOK NEWS: Frank's Wild Years

Looking ahead to the March 2012 launch of Frank's Wild Years, here's a sneak preview of the book cover. An understated little number in matt black, it's the latest in a long line of great Caffeine Nights covers designed by the estimable Mr Mark (Wills) Williams.

For further information about the book, the launch and a newly installed author profile, visit the Caffeine Nights website.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

THE CHORDS: I Remember You, Don't Think I Don't Now

The Chords circa '79: Chris Pope, Brett 'Buddy' Ascott, Billy Hassett, Martin Mason 
The first time I saw The Chords I was a 16 year old mod at Orpington Civic Hall in August 1981. The Chords were everything I thought a band should be - young, vital, fast and with something to say. Within a month, they’d split. Tagged Jam wannabes by a music press that cooled quickly on the mod revivalist tag once art school boys went west and did the make-up and Dorothy Perkins look, the Chords dropped into the world of occasional appearances on compilation CDs. The band's main writer, Chris Pope, toured with his own outfit trading on a sprinkling of old Chords songs and newly written material.

Cut to a murky night in Sheffield last year. I’m 200 miles from London and the reformed Chords are in town at the Leadmill. Judging by the Omo glow of newly purchased white Fred Perrys in the crowd, I’m not the only one here taking a trip down mod memory lane.  And when the Killermeters, the evening’s other survivors from my (revival) generation take the stage for the support slot, I find myself having second thoughts about the whole thing. A nostalgia trip for its own sake is a pretty hollow event at the best of times and there’s something a bit tired about the Killermeters. More PK50 than SX225.
When The Chords take the stage, you sense it could go either way. But here’s the weird thing: as the gig goes on, the band steam into each song like it’s the last time they’ll ever play it. Pope and Hassett give the angsty suburban kick of songs like Maybe Tomorrow, Something’s Missing, and Now It’s Gone a twenty-first century relevance I hadn’t seen coming. The Chords always majored in great power chord choruses and sentiments that took the best aspects of Weller's social comment songs and made them their own in a string of great singles like In My Street. Chris Pope’s arrangements – in some cases re-arrangements – breathe new life into the familiar. Thirty years on and by the time the band encore – A British Way of Life and a rousing, inevitable So Far Away (Billy Hassett gets a smack in the mouth from a mic-stand and still manages to come back bloody-lipped and smiling) I swear the band and most of the audience are looking ten years younger.
Nostalgia’s an odd thing, but the truth is, if music is relevant now and if it matters now, it transcends criticism that it’s just looking over its shoulder. It's the same criticism the NME et al made back in the day. But that night The Chords gave us a reminder why they were always worth much more than the revival tag allowed them. And, in the process, proved themselves a band capable of being relevant in the here and now.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

BOOK NEWS: Frank's Wild Years

As some of you will be aware, publisher Caffeine Nights autumn publications have been re-scheduled for spring 2012. This means that we won't be seeing Frank's Wild Years until next year. As with any delay, there's an upside: this one mainly in allowing more preparation to go into the marketing campaign and getting review copies out in good time.

The unexpected haitus has also given me an opportunity to contribute shorter fiction to a couple of exciting projects: the Off the Record e-book collection put together by Guilty Conscience blogmeister Mr Luca Veste, and the redoubtable Mr Paul Brazill's Brit Grit 2.

As well as the short stuff, I'm taking a saunter down Turnpike Lane N8 and into the scuzzy underworld of conspiracy with DI Mark Lomax on a re-write of my novel The Paradise Man. I'll also be working through a stack of research and new interviews and bringing together the threads of the Ted Lewis biography.

Finding ways to make a living as a freelance writer will be the focus of an MA Masterclass I'm delivering to unsuspecting students at Sheffield Hallam University on 7 December. I'll be pitching in with some practical pointers as to how the MA Writing can work for creative freelancers in the precarious world of publishing and arts funding.

In the meantime, a track from the Frank's Wild Years playlist:

'FRANK' postcard designed by Paul Davy at Davyart

Sunday, 18 September 2011

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY – From Page to Screen

Gary Oldman as George Smiley - '...a buddha-like inscrutability'

In John Le Carré’s classic cold war novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its faithful 1979 BBC adaptation, George Smiley has a classic ‘tell’. In moments of reflection, the man charged with hunting for the Soviet agent buried deep inside the British secret intelligence service, cleans his glasses with “the fat end of his tie”, a character tic inferring that somehow within the multiple layers of his intellect, Smiley has access to a deeper tier of perception than those around him. Le Carré writes and Sir Alec Guinness, the first and until now the definitive Smiley, played these moments perfectly. George Smiley is the elder MI6 functionary, discarded and redundant, whose depth of experience and weary disaffection betrays little, if any, of the workings beneath.

“From the outset of this meeting Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability…”

Some way through watching the relentlessly bleak Tomas Alfredson directed cinema adaptation, I realised that Gary Oldman’s George Smiley had spent almost the entirety of his screen time tightly waist-coated. It is as if Smiley is physically and metaphorically buttoned, denied even this passing external expression of inner goings-on. It is indicative of a performance which, for at least the first two-thirds of the film, is a study in stillness and understatement. Oldman’s Smiley is a flintier and more intense re-interpretation of the character we thought we knew.
Le Carré’s narrative perspective in the novel – omniscient and third person – is fundamental to exploring the conflict between private thought and public articulation. That which we, the readers, know and other characters do not, gives us deeper insight.

“Still disturbed by this intrusion on his memory, Smiley stood up in rather a flurry and went to the window, his ideal lookout when he was distracted.”

The novel gives space and time to eke out these nuances of character which, in a two-hour multiplex window are difficult – unless you resort to the clunk of exposition or invasive voice over, which thankfully the film does rarely, and usually to cover a swathe of narrative backstory in a few short scenes. Consequently, we come to understand Smiley as much from those around him as the character himself. One of the film’s great plusses is that the stellar supporting cast is given room to play.

For an author whose carefully depicted settings play such a key role in the supporting the narrative, the novel’s influence over the way the film feels and looks is evident. Time and place – London in the 1970s – the fag-end of the British Empire, with MI6’s status and energy drained by age and betrayal, are brilliantly invoked. That sense of tired functionality is embodied in the Circus – the headquarters of the intelligence service – with its soundproofed office pods and washed-out municipal paint job. This is the analogue world. It has an almost Orwellian oppressiveness and a washed out grimness that carries into the exterior scenes. In an early scene, a red double-decker crosses the shot. It is in stark contrast to every other shade on screen before and after. A scene in which Smiley is called to the home of Under Secretary Lacon – another great supporting performance from Simon McBurney – is a study in beige, from the textured wallpaper to Lacon’s polo neck jumper.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a great British novel whose potencies have been faithfully brought to the screen. It is a book which demands engagement; it is accessible, but its narrative  – or at least the multiple layers of narrative – are not easily dropped into mainstream cinema. The film’s crucial changes are those which see key events re-framed or cut altogether whilst maintaining the novel’s measured pace and solidly European aesthetic. The reveals are there, just not where you always expect them to be. There are thankfully few concessions. Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy remains an engagingly complex display of the best that British genre fiction can produce. This is a great story, brilliantly realised on screen, aimed at an audience willing to work a little.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

DEXYS: New Album

After exchanging e-mails with Jamming! fanzine’s Tony Fletcher last week and possibly timed to coincide with a final disappearance into an early 80s vortex, I learned this week, somewhat behind the news, that Dexy’s Midnight Runners are back in the studio. The band, under the moniker Dexys, confirmed on that they’re rehearsing and recording a new album – their first since 1985’s Don’t Stand Me Down.

The band posted a message which said: ‘Dexys new album. Can't really say why, because it's hard to put down to any one thing, but it's working – it's early days, but so far so good.’ They hope to have the album ready for release in 2012.
A snippet – the first minute of a sweet piece of Celtic soul titled ‘Now’ has recently been posted on youtube.
The current line-up includes singer Kevin Rowland and original bassist Pete Williams along with former Merton Parkas and Style Council keyboardist Mick Talbot and guitarist Neil Hubbard. Merton Mick is also co-producing and according to Kevin Rowland: ‘…working thru all the fine details, making sure the vision is realized’.
For some, Dexys Midnight Runners came and went with the two singles that topped the UK charts – Geno in 1980 and Come On Eileen in 1982. But for those of us of a certain vintage, the first Dexy’s album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels stood out as a rallying call. It still does. At the time it did for soul music what Two-Tone did for ska. An injection of punk energy and soul power. An entry into the world of Stax, raw soul and beyond.
And as if you needed a reminder.
And for the record, yes we did: donkey jackets, DMs and woolly hats. The works.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


Back in the day when I was editing Article Magazine, we used to run Top 5s as a useful back page filler. As time went on, mainly we invited guest interviewees to contribute, and it's an impossible ask, but here's one I dropped in early on, Top 5 basslines:

1.       Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick – Ian Dury & The Blockheads (Norman Watt-Roy) like a bubbling bass fountain of bassiness.

 2.      Guns of Brixton – The Clash (Paul Simonon) much sampled, nicked and Simmo gets to sing it too.

3.       I’ll Take You There – The Staple Singers (David Hood) Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, tight as it gets.

4.       Ceremony – New Order (Peter Hook) from the ashes of Joy Division, etc, etc…but what a way to announce your entrance.

5.       Babylon’s Burning – The Ruts (John ‘Segs’ Jennings) a bassline so urgent it makes your teeth ache.

Of course, you may feel differently...

Sunday, 14 August 2011


Alec Guinness as Le Carre's Smiley

There comes a point in the fiction writing process when, if you’re on the right track, your characters begin to take on their own lives. It is as if they demand a hand in their own destiny. Of course you can’t just leave them to it – there’s a God complex to satisfy for one thing, to say nothing of a slavish devotion to the twists and turns of the plot you’ve sweated over. But whose plot is it anyway, yours or theirs? The deeper your understanding of key characters, and the further into their lives and motivations you immerse yourself, the more likely the plot will develop to accommodate them, and be more convincing as a result.

As we meet John Le Carré’s  cerebral, yet unassuming spymaster George Smiley, the physical description hints at a far deeper representation of character.   

“His overcoat, which had a hint of widowhood about it, was of that black, loose weave which is designed to retain moisture. Either the sleeves were too long or his arms too short for, as with Roach, when he wore his mackintosh, the cuffs all but concealed his fingers.”

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John Le Carré

So here’s a few suggestions – no more than starters – which I’ve used (and use) in writing workshops and in my own writing to begin the process of drawing characters off the page. 

1.           The searching interview
Try interviewing your characters – interrogate them if needs be. This isn’t a Friday Night chat show love-in. What wouldn’t your character want to answer? What would give you a deeper insight to their world, their motivations? Think about their answers, what would they hide? Put them under pressure – it can also help as a tool to find the character’s voice.

For any interview it makes sense to do your research, if your character isn’t yet developed to the extent where this is useful. Try the following exercise.

2.           Empty your pockets please…
The character Jacqui first appeared in The Debt, an unpublished short story, but the work that went into her creation paid dividends when she dropped into my novel Frank’s Wild Years. By then I knew her well enough for her to walk easily into the story and once there, she began to develop as one of the novel’s prime movers. In short, she became the catalyst for the main storyline.

I made a list of items Jacqui carried with her. In the initial exercise I counted 10. Here are three to give the gist.

A pen: what type of pen? A 50p biro with a bitten lid; something a little more upmarket perhaps, a corporate freebie, a stubby blue betting shop job, a souvenir from a seaside town. A high-end personalised Parker or a Mont Blanc fountain pen makes a difference. For the record, Jacqui’s pen’s a freebie from the local Chinese takeaway.  

A purse/wallet: a classic crime fiction device, every author from Conan-Doyle to Dexter has taken apart the contents of a wallet to let the audience in on a few well-chosen secrets and develop the resulting plotlines.  How much cash is there? A train ticket to where…? Who’s in the photo? An unclaimed betting slip – for a race run yesterday.

Keys: how many? What are they for? Are there car keys? What does she drive? It’s a bunch – maybe with some kind of fob, a lucky charm? Who gave her the lucky charm?

In Jacqui’s development, I gave a fair amount of thought to the conflict between the public and the private person. So much of this is unseen for most of the novel, but I’d planted a couple of character traits that I fully intended to deliver on as the story progressed. The reader might not know the motivation for her actions, but I always did.

3.           Character Sketch
Once you’ve got to know the character, it’s worth writing a paragraph that sums up their backstory and motivations. Keep it tight and be disciplined.

Jacqui is a woman in her mid-fifties. She has owned and run a launderette in a run-down part of South London since 1966, lives in a flat over the shop. She borrowed half the money to start the launderette from a small time local villain Dave Price…

And so on.

In the world of genre fiction, a protagonist, sidekick, antagonist, victim, witness who read as though they’ve shipped in from central casting can stifle even the most well-crafted of plots. Of course, there are some characters who seem to come fully formed, complete, but preparing the ground is never wasted.

Frank's Wild Years is published by Caffeine Nights - Autumn 2011. 


Friday, 5 August 2011


Linda turns both plates a few degrees clockwise for one final inspection before serving: prime Scottish beef at two o’clock, seared, slow roasted to perfection, still pink and melt in the mouth tender; twelve freshly minted garden peas arranged like tiny green apostles; opposite these, buttered baby carrots, pan-fried and fanned; a light and golden Yorkshire pudding; four crisp roast potatoes; a swirl of rich, dark jus. ‘Oh Heston,’ she whispers and steadies herself against the worktop.

‘You gonna be much bloody longer?’

For a moment, she had forgotten. ‘Just a sec, Phil.’

Linda wipes a jus smear from the plate’s border, carries it to the table and places it in front of him. She sits, closes her eyes and says a private grace. Oh Lord, for what he is about to receive, make Phil truly thankful. Let him like the food, let him appreciate my work, let him… She opens her eyes and is chilled to the marrow.

Ketchup, HP sauce, English mustard, whole grain mustard, horseradish. The plate is a Pollock’s palette with condiments spooned thickly around its border. As he reaches for the salt, she catches him by the wrist. ‘Phil, really, it doesn’t need salt.’

Phil’s jaw tightens, his nostrils flare. ‘If I want salt…’ He yanks his arm free.
Linda does not watch.

Two minutes and thirty-seven seconds it takes. She counts each second as the chewing noises grow more frantic; his jaw clicks like a Geiger counter. The grunts and sucks and slurps build to a climax until finally the troughing is complete. The cutlery clatters on the plate.

Linda breathes.

‘Any more out there, Lind?’

She smiles and, without a word, moves through to the kitchen.

He calls out. ‘Bit more gravy this time, and cut us a slice of bread for moppin’ up.’

Linda cleans the blade on the electric carver, makes a rough calculation and plugs in the extension lead. She re-connects. Pausing for a moment, she sighs wistfully. What happens to these men she marries? Always at the start so attentive, thoughtful, generous. Ready with their flowers and compliments.

The carver buzzes like a baby chainsaw in her hand. It had been a gift – from her first husband. She grips tightly; there is no need for further reflection. On the carver a name is writ, and it is called Heston. And this will be His work.