Wednesday, 23 June 2010


In May 1978 I was still nineteen. I wouldn't be twenty until that following August. I struggle now to remember the detail of what I did on a day to day basis. It all seems a very long time ago. It is a long time ago.

I was living in Manchester then. I had left Newcastle in the long hot summer of 76 to go to art college. I had never been away from home on my own apart from a couple of school trips. I could boil and fry an egg and pour milk on cereal and that was about it. I knew no one.

Now I was heading towards the end of the first year of my illustration course, wondering if I had made a terrible mistake. Wasn't I really a painter? Or a writer, maybe? I had been on the foundation course the previous year and had lived in digs in a half-demolished area of Old Trafford. But I was living a more authentic student life now, sharing the top floor of a house in West Didsbury.

I was hanging out at Mr Marvel's Cafe and painted murals for Harvey, the kind-hearted owner, who made great cheesecakes and taught me how to play backgammon (something I have annoyingly forgotten).

I struggled to keep up with the challenges of my increasingly complex personal life. I read Jean-Paul Sartre and the Roads to Freedom trilogy seemed to make complete sense to me in a way things do when you are nineteen. I began a long autobiographical and existentialist novel that I burnt in a saucepan in front of my girlfriend in an unwittingly comical and Woody Allenish 'big' gesture. That showed her!

I remember being almost unbearably sad at times and writing pretty unbearable poems about how that felt. I remember feeling that everyone else seemed to know what they were doing except for me, and wondering how that could be. Had there been some meeting I hadn't attended? I remember feeling lost a lot of the time.

But I also remember being really happy, of having wonderful moments of carefree joy. I remember great friends and falling in love with them with a platonic passion. I remember a lot of silliness and laughter. I played a lot of pool and began to develop what I like to think was a unique dancing style.

I had begun to see a lot of live music and I was lucky enough to be at college in a city with a lot of music venues. In May 1978 I went to see Elvis Costello at Rafters. I was standing near the back with my friend Andrew Ellis. The crowd staggered back and then forward and we seemed to be washed towards the stage - or that's my memory of it. I wasn't even that big a fan - not like Andrew - but that gig stands out somehow. It's strange how some do.

We were at the fag end of the Callaghan Labour government. The Lib-Lab pact was about to collapse and the Winter of Discontent would follow, with the grisly element of mortuary workers going on strike in Manchester leaving bodies unburied. Thatcher was waiting in the wings like a music hall villain.

The month before I had gone down to London to march to Victoria Park for the Rock Against Racism concert featuring the rather incongruous sight of Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 singing White Riot with the Clash. My political views continued their leftward drift.

In May 1940 my father was also still nineteen. He was in the Royal Artillery and had been sent to France and Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force. He had joined the army as a boy soldier but had later returned to civilian life. But his training meant that he was among the first wave of conscripts when war broke out.

The BEF were routed and forced to spike their guns, destroying them rather than let them fall into enemy hands. Then they made a frenzied dash to the coast. In May 1940 my father was standing among the sand dunes at Dunkirk waiting for his turn to get off the beaches. Queues of men snaked out into the water. Vessels of every size floated offshore trying to get them home. German planes bombed and strafed. The dead drifted back and forth in the shallows.

My father was among the last to leave the beaches of Dunkirk, getting away via the ruptured stone mole on a Royal Navy ship. As soon as he was aboard he was put to work as a spotter, but he maintains his services were redundant because any plane they saw was German. He says he never saw an RAF fighter the whole time and the RAF were roundly condemned as cowards - something that would get forgotten when they were awarded hero status during the Battle of Britain.

Bruised, battered, exhausted and traumatised, the young soldiers arrived back in England to hear that the fiasco of Dunkirk had been spun into a myth of plucky fortitude in the face of disaster. There is telling footage at the Imperial War Museum of soldiers disembarking. The fruity voice of the newsreader says that they our brave boys aren't downhearted or some such drivel while the faces of those poor men stare out, dead-eyed.

My father does not like to talk about Dunkirk. He is frustrated to be associated with what he sees as a defeat. He never bought the myth of 'Dunkirk Spirit'. He never used to talk about it at all, but in recent years he has opened up a little more. Having said that, he talks in well-rehearsed anecdotes and I suspect that they mask the messy truth of what it was really like.

I asked him once what he thought of the infamous opening scenes of the D Day landing in Saving Private Ryan, firmly expecting him to dismiss it as over the top. He wasn't involved in D Day, but the sequence clearly had a horrible resonance for him. He looked at me and said, matter-of-factly, 'It was like documentary footage.'

My father will be ninety this year. His stays in hospital have started to outweigh his time at home. The recent Dunkirk anniversary passed him by. He was too ill to notice much about it and would have probably said, 'I can't see why people make such a fuss about it' - his usual line when it comes up in conversation. Under the influence of morphine recently he has hallucinated and it was always about Dunkirk. It is always there.

Of course it is! I remember an Elvis Costello gig for Christ's sake. I could even make a decent stab at what he was wearing.

My dad asked me once why I was so interested in Dunkirk, in the war and his part in it. Apart from the fact that he was present at a pivotal moment in history, I said, our fates were tied together: when he was rescued from Dunkirk, so was I. If he had not lived, then I would not have been born.

My father wasn't allowed to be nineteen in the way that I was allowed to be nineteen. Hell, he wasn't even allowed to be fourteen - out of school and into work at an age when I was still allowed to be a child.

We were pretty intolerant of each other when I was in my teens, me and my dad. I was happy to leave home. He could be a difficult man. We argued a lot. And besides - you think you know everything when you're nineteen.

But I cannot imagine how I would have coped with what he had to cope with at Dunkirk. I have never been tested in that way. Would I have done what I had to do, or would I have curled myself up into a ball and pissed myself?

I'm so lucky that I never had to find out.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Berkshire and back

My journey to and from Eagle House school yesterday was a bit of a nightmare. People clearly were trying to get home to watch the football, but so many of them were doing this, that they effectively snarled up the road network. It was better coming back, because most people had set off early, but I almost did not get to the event - and I had allowed myself a couple of hours.

They have had quite a list of authors - a bill that many large festivals would be envious of. Sally Nicholls and Marcus Sedgewick had both been there earlier in the week and my talk was followed by former children's laureate Anne Fine.

I had never met Anne Fine before but she was good fun and a very supportive presence in the marquee where I gave my talk. I chatted about how I came to be a writer and did some reading. It all seemed to go reasonably well and the children asked lots of good questions afterwards. Then I signed some books alongside Anne Fine. Her queue lasted much longer than mine and she was still signing when it was time for her to go and do her talk.

I would have liked to have stayed and listened to Anne but I figured - rightly as it happened - that I ought to get going in case the roads were bad again. The traffic wasn't as bad, but it was still to be a long and tiring journey. I said my goodbyes, bolted down a sandwich and even got a rather lovely paperweight as a memento. Thanks to all the Eagle House festival organisers and staff and - most of all - the children for being such a great audience. Good to meet you all.

Sadly, though - I did not entirely miss the England v Algeria match. I managed to see the last, tedious twenty minutes or so of perhaps the worst football of a pretty dull World Cup, so far.

If only the traffic had been worse.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Swedish tunnel

I had some more good news on the foreign rights front today. My Swedish publisher - Raben and Sjogren - are taking Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. I'm hoping this means that the other two have done reasonably well.

And Thailand is taking The Dead of Winter. It's always exciting to sell foreign rights to a book before its even been published here. I wrote a little about bound proofs for the Writers and Artists website recently and this shows their importance.

Publishing still moves very slowly and bound proofs prevent us from having to wait until a book is published before it can be shown to booksellers, reviewers and foreign publishers. And the more foreign sales, the faster you are going to pay off the publishers advance and start earning some money in royalties.

Monday, 14 June 2010

I'm not ready for my close-up. . .

Last Friday I went to London to do a spot of filming for the Booked Up website. I traveled down by train from Cambridge and met my Bloomsbury publicist, Ian Lamb at Victoria station. We traveled the next short train journey to Wandsworth together and walked to the studio, arriving just as if began to rain.

Authors were in and out all day in a seemingly endless cycle. I arrived with enough time for a very swift chat with and a chance to see the little video that they'd already taken of a boy being very sweetly enthusiastic about my book, before I had to do my bit.

It didn't go very well. I don't mean that I was awful - I just mean that I wasn't good. We were each given a 45 second slot to introduce the book and for some reason this just didn't work for me. I'm not entirely sure why.

I think it may because I allowed myself to be too influenced by the director when she said that 'Everyone else has been saying. . .' Also the boy I saw in the clip had effectively given an introduction and it seemed to make me doing the same a little pointless. But also I did not quite prepare for the task properly. I normally just do whatever feels right at that moment, but with 45 seconds there just wasn't time for that. It needed precision and, though I hate doing it, on balance it would have been simpler to just write something and stick to it. In the end, it comes down to me. I did not get it right.

I had scribbled something down in my notebook but I chickened out. As soon as I was on the train home I realised that it would have been much better to say that. But these things are over in a flash. You get one chance to shine and it's gone.

That said, I do hate talking to a camera. Who feels natural doing that? People who work in TV, but no one else. Perhaps I just have to accept that the format did me no favours. If I was writing funny stories it would probably have been a doddle. But this is all part and parcel of being an author these days and I need to sort it out.

My publicist said that he felt a bit bad asking authors to do these things - even though it was his job - but I really don't mind. I just don't want to do anything unless I can do it well. Ian is always so incredibly enthusiastic - I felt like I'd let him down. I've been cross about it ever since.

Sometimes being OK isn't enough.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Vlag & Wimpels van de Griffeljury

I had some nice news on Monday. My Dutch publishers, Pimento, got in touch via Bloomsbury to tell me that the Dutch translation of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship has won a special mention - called the Vlag & Wimpels (Flag and Pennants) - in the Gouden Griffel awards. The translator clearly did a fantastic job and I am really honoured to get this. I am also very pleased to have been invited over for the ceremony in October. More about that nearer the time.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Booked up

I had a call from Ian Lamb, my publicity person at Bloomsbury, a while back. He told me some news but also told me to keep it to myself because it was not going to be officially announced until June. Well, here we are. It is June 7 and the Booked Up list is officially announced and I am very pleased to say that Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is one of the books. It is a real honour to be chosen.

For those of you who are not in the UK or who have missed the scheme, Booked Up is a government funded programme, in association with publishers, to provide a free book to every child starting secondary school. It is an initiative that aims to kick start a love of reading for pleasure. It is a wonderful idea and I'm very proud to be part of it.

I'm off to London on Thursday to do some filming for the website.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Robot rampage

I came back to lots of mail and emails. I have to say that I hate it when I go away and come back to no mail, but it does seem to take an age to go through it all.

I received disappointing news from the Royal Academy Summer Show: my two paintings did not get in. I rang John hoping that at least he would have got in, but sadly his painting wasn't accepted either. It's a shame, but open exhibitions are a lottery. Or at least that's what we say when we don't get in.

My son rushed excitedly to retrieve a parcel from our neighbors across the road, thinking it was a birthday present for him, but it turned out to be a set of the OUP books I did a while back. I did two books in their Project X series. They are for the Oxford Reading Tree scheme and look a little bizarre on my shelves to be honest - they are so different from everything I have been doing for the last few years. But they were fun to do. The characters already existed and so did the major plot movers, so it was more as I imagine it must be like writing for an existing TV programme or for a comic with established characters.

I had an email from Bloomsbury telling me that Tudem, my Turkish publisher for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, has also decided to take Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Which is great news.

And speaking of Tunnel's Mouth, I had the paperback covers through the post before I went away. It has a great quote from my erstwhile employer, The Independent -

''s genuinely, thrillingly horrible. And I mean that in a good way.'

The paperback is out in October this year.

I also had an email from the Eagle House School near Sandhurst where I am doing an event the week after next. They are having a Celebration of Children's Literature Festival and I'm very much looking forward to meeting everyone there.

I have some other news, but I am not allowed to tell you until tomorrow. . .

Saturday, 5 June 2010


I have been in Wales with my wife and son all last week. We were staying in a cottage near Dolgellau. The cottage was in a lovely setting and we had glorious weather. We climbed Cadair Idris, visited crazy Portmeirion (setting for the cult 1960s series The Prisoner), walked besides waterfalls, rode on a narrow gauge steam train, strolled beneath the giant clipped yews of Powis Castle Gardens and saw so much wildlife. It was great.

But now its back to the real world. . .