A short tale for St George’s Day

Somewhere near what will become Dover; England 300AD

UK Border Agent: ‘I’m sorry but you can’t come in here.’
St George: ‘ But I’m St George, I’m your Patron Saint’
UKBA: ‘Don’t care who you are mate, you’re from Syria Palaestina and King Nigel says we need strict immigration controls to protect the British way of life.’
St George: ‘But I have travelled far over land and sea.’
UKBA: ‘You were lucky Queen Katie’s sword boats didn’t get you then. The English Channel is full of bodies these day.’
St George: ‘ But I’m here to slay your dragon!’
UKBA: ‘No chance mate, that’s a job for a British worker. See it’s on the form: Dragon Slayer 100 points. How many points have you got there then?’
St George: ‘5,10, 20, 25. Look this is ridiculous. Has anyone in Britain ever slayed a dragon before?’
UKBA: ‘Not as such no. But you’ve not got enough points. You’ve not even got a degree.’
St George: ‘But I’m a professional dragon slayer; that’s what I do.’
UKBA: ‘I don’t care if you’re the Holy Roman Emperor. You’re not coming in here and that’s final. Next!…’

Luckily English history wasn’t quite like this so Happy St George’s Day to all my friends in England today wherever we may come from originally.

A postcard from the Bairro Alto

2014-09-09 14.40.19My apartment sits in on the edge of Bairro Alto high above the city opposite the Convento de Nossa Senhora de Jesus and five minutes walk from the Palácio de São Bento, the Portuguese parliament. When it rains (and when it rains, it rains), you can hear the flow of water as it heads down to the bottom of the street and the squeal of car tyres as they struggle for grip on the steep road. At the bottom, the famous Tram 28 makes its way up the Calçada do Combro past the church of Santa Catarina with its spectacular interior and into the tourist area with its restaurants, bars and fado houses.
Here there are fewer visitors, the occasional tuk-tuk taking tourists on a tour around the Bairro Alto or those passing through on their way to see the parliament. This is a working class area. Not the same as my childhood, but it is familiar enough.
Two doors down from me on this terraced street is a bar/pasteleria where the old men while away the hours and others pass through on their way to and from their work. Another two doors down and a garage, a wide door leading to a space for two cars, a workbench and not much else; a world away from the main dealers with their high tech diagnostic machines. At the bottom of the road, there’s a little cultural centre for the Mozambique community in the area with an exhibition space and a small space not much larger than a front room where musicians and dancers practice from time to time. On the corner, a bookshop with two more just a minute away next to second hand furniture shops and a TV and radio shop selling equipment, that I can remember from my childhood, to those who cannot afford or do not want the latest gizmos.
Food is fresh in this area. Fruit and veg shops, butchers, bakers (and yes, there’s a candlestick maker), fish shops and pastelerias serving the famous pasteis de nata and other savouries to make the mouth water. It’s food that looks inviting and succulent rather than the anaemic looking selection available in most UK supermarkets. There are mini ‘supermercados’ but  these are tiny with the customers moving around each other and the store in an alternative elaborate version of Twister.

Go eastwards however, along the Avenida de Liberate or the Rua do Loreto, and you could be in any major city – Hermes, Nike, H&M, FNAC, all the international brands for those who can afford them. At the Colombo shopping centre or at the Estádio Jose Alvalada are the big supermarkets – Continente, Lidl. The modern world awaits around the corner.
2014-09-14 18.44.34‘Obra a Ovra, Lisboa melhora!’ (‘Work by work, Lisboa improves’) proclaim banners on building sites and for some it will. Lisbon could easily become the new Barcelona or Valencia and the redevelopment of the waterfront area is a step towards this. The developers are moving in here too. How long will this street stay this way before the full shadow of global capitalism reaches here? Two, three, five years at the most? The estate agents post leaflets through the door most days.
What happens when children from families who have lived here for generations can no longer afford a home? When the offer to sell your business, which barely provides a living, is too good to turn down to the man in the sharp suit? How long before this area is empty during the day as more become holiday lets or those who can afford to live here go off into the financial district in order to pay the high cost of living? How soon before they will want a delivery van to bring them food?

Last night I saw Kate Bush…

**Warning – contains spoilers (and gushes of sentiment)**

 

Last night I saw Kate Bush in concert. Let’s type that once again just to make sure I’ve got that right and it wasn’t just a dream. Last night I saw Kate Bush in concert.

I think I could type that all night and I’m still not sure it would sink in. The last time Kate Bush played live, I wasn’t even an adult. Some of you reading this may not even have been born.

There’s an interest in this gig that goes way beyond the expectations of the fans, witnessed by the mass of TV camera crews gathered outside. There are people who’ve flown in from the US, Canada and Australia to see this. I’d have done the same if needs be. I bloody love Kate Bush.

But is the show going to be any good? After all, she’s hardly ever seen in public let alone performed. Leotards and the really high notes of the early songs aren’t going to happen but can she still sing live? Again, if you’ve only ever done one tour and haven’t played for 35 years (let’s type that one again too – 35 years), you’ve not the stage experience of someone of similar stature e.g. Peter Gabriel. It’s entirely possible this could fail to live up to the hype.

No worries, it more than lives up to the hype. It’s simply magical. It starts off as a conventional concert with the band behind her for the first few songs but morphs into a rich piece of performance theatre that only someone who has defied the ‘rules’ of pop music for virtually all her career can come up with. ‘The Ninth Wave’ (the second side of ‘Hounds of Love’ for those of you who remember vinyl) performed in its entirety. The second half consists of ‘A Sky of Honey’ (from Aerial) and an encore of ‘Among Angels’ from ‘50 Words For Snow ‘with a triumphant ‘Cloudbusting’ to finish followed by one last standing ovation, which went on long after the house lights went up.

In the end, this isn’t just a comeback concert; it’s a game changer, pushing the boundaries of what can be done just as she’s done with her music over the years.

Put a sea buoy on the stage, why not? A helicopter moving over the audience, that’s no problem either. Some of the best musicians in the business; goes without saying. This is someone who works on her own terms and I’m not sure how many artists could have pulled this comeback off after such a long time with this level of ambition?

Twenty-four hours later, I’m still not back to Earth. It was never a lifelong ambition to see Kate Bush. How could it be? Few fans thought there would ever be the opportunity. But then it happened and last night, with the same joy a four year old experiences Christmas, I saw Kate Bush in concert.

The Long Road to Oxford

Having been quiet on the writing front due to work commitments, it was a joy to get back into the swing of things on Saturday. First stop was the very first London Short Story Festival at Waterstones in Piccadily ably organised by Paul McVeigh and a host of volunteers. Tania Hershman hosted an hour of ‘weird writing’ with Dan Powell, Adam Marek and Rob Sherman which provided food for thought. Then it was up to the boardroom for a workshop on generating ideas with Adam Marek. As I spend a lot of time in boardrooms in my day job, it seemed a bit cruel to spend a lovely weekend day in yet another one but the workshop itself was really interesting. It confirmed some things I think I knew about how I write but also gave me lots more to think about.

Then, I headed off to Paddington aboard a tube that must have experienced the London Blitz firsthand, sprinting like a Michelin Man possessed to leap above the train to Oxford for what proved to be a four hour journey to Oxford, being thrown off at Didcot. Left to fend for ourselves and no taxis for about 30 mins, I went for the bus on the basis, I’d be moving in the right direction. How wrong I was and I arrived in Oxford a broken man having:

1. Toured round an empty industrial estate (Saturday night!!)

2. Visited the village with the most speed humps per 100m in the entire universe (can’t remember, my brain still hurts!)

3. Navigated Abingdon like a Google Maps car (sure we went down every bloody street!)

Eventually I arrived at the Albion Beatnik bookstore in Oxford  at the halftime interval for the National Flash Fiction day event hosted by Virginia Moffatt, author of Rapture and What Comes Next and a member of the Friday Flash community which encouraged me to start writing. Indeed Virginia wrote a lovely blog post about my writing by way of introduction which I really appreciate. I read a couple of stories – ‘A Room With A View’ from the Stories for Homes Anthology and ‘The Last Last Ride’ which is about going round in circles (somewhat appropriate for the evening) then enjoyed listening to some lovely stories from other writers.

Fortunately I’d decided not to travel home that evening and instead settled for a relaxing night in a hotel before hitting Blackwells in the morning (or did they hit me, I’m not entirely sure!). It was a tiring but inspiring day and I am so looking forward now to August and September which will be my writing months for 2014.

Thanks to Virginia and Paul for organising these events and helping flash and short fiction forms of writing gain the respect they deserve.

‘Stories For Homes’ launched on Kindle

sfh-cover

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I’m not a great fan of Amazon so I’m wriggling in my seat as I write this.

My short story ‘Room with a View’ has been published in the anthology Stories for Home which is now available on Amazon Kindle . For those of you who, like me, prefer books with pages and ink and supporting local bookshops, a paperback will be out at some point in the Autumn.

‘Stories for Homes’ is a project to raise funds for the housing charity Shelter and to raise awareness about the housing crisis in London and beyond (because as some of us know, there is a ‘beyond’). Known and ’emerging’ writers (emerging sounds better than saying ‘unknown’ doesn’t it?) were invited to submit stories of up to 3,000 words on the theme of Home.

The book has had a great start. For those of you who like numbers, here’s the stats:

Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (5 customer reviews) – thank you to the ‘the eternal optimist’ who mentioned my story as one of her favourites.

Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,229 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store), #6 in Kindle Store > Books > Fiction > Anthologies, #9 in Books > Fiction > Anthologies

Naturally I’m really pleased to have been selected for the anthology. I’d love it if you’d support Shelter and even more so if you’d do so through buying the e-book or the paperback.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy the tales from some of the UK’s top short story writers.

Stories For Homes

I’m really pleased to say that my story ‘A Room with a View’ will be published this summer in the ‘Stories for Homes’ anthology in support of housing charity Shelter. As you may know, many people are now facing homelessness as a direct consequence of Government policy and the ongoing economic crisis in the UK. As I was brought up on a council estate (my Dad still lives there), I’ve an appreciation of what’s going on so this is a project close to my heart.

I’d struggled to come up with an idea for a short story right until the final day and was apologising to one of the editors, Debi Alper on Twitter. ‘You’ve got until midnight.’ she said. Actually, I hadn’t. I had two hours before I had to go out. Somehow I managed to think of something that would work and then there was a mad scramble to write and submit it in the time available.

An acceptance is always good but it comes as a nice boost to my confidence and I’m looking forward to seeing the final collection. I’ll publish more details when I get them.

As a teaser, here’s a short excerpt:

From our window, you can see the pier and sea. There’s a film called ‘A Room with a View’ and that’s what we have. Except it isn’t ours. It belongs to the hotel we stay in now. Most people think living in a hotel by the seaside would be fabulous, like being a film star, but there’s nothing good about living here.

Snow Angels

FLASH MOB 2013  is a hybrid competition/blog carnival to celebrate International Flash Fiction Day on June 22nd. Here’s my entry.

Snow Angels

The constant hum and buzz of the city is replaced by distinct sounds, a door slamming, children laughing.

‘Come and make a snow angel with me, Granddad. I’ll show you what to do’. Sophie pulls Patrick up from the bench by the hand and leads him over to an undisturbed spot in the communal garden, pointing to the ground. Patrick lies down cursing his ageing bones. He closes his eyes and moves his body but to another voice.

The trees are glazed in white in the warmth of a winter sun. He is a young man, here with his unit marching to battle. The children play in the soft powder of last night’s snowfall. Patrick watches them for a while then gestures to a pretty girl with long black hair, eight maybe nine, to let him join in. His arms and legs move slowly pushing the snow aside to her instructions even though he cannot tell what she is saying. He feels the sun on his face and for a moment, the fighting is forgotten. Afterwards he divides his chocolate ration between the children, slipping the young girl an extra piece when no one else is looking. Then he gathers his troops and sets off for the front.

The soldiers come back the next week, fewer in number. The snow and the people have gone. All that remains are the smoldering remains of what was once a village.

His granddaughter is shaking him now, crying out his name. Patrick opens his eyes and smiles back at the frightened child standing over him, whispering words of reassurance. He struggles to his feet, wiping his tears with his scarf as he does. He reaches into his pocket for chocolate and breaks off an extra piece for her.

Two Worlds

A Friday Flash, this story was highly commended in a National Flash Fiction Day competition on the 1000words site Feb 2013. 

Two Worlds

‘More plates, I need plates. This is a restaurant, not a take out.’

‘Yes, Chef. Right away Chef.’ Yes Chef, no Chef, Kiss my arse Chef.

Greg stared out of the kitchen window above the sink, his hands continuing to work on autopilot. He could see the lights of the Piste Bullies high up on the mountain bashing down the snowfall of the last twenty four hours.

‘For God’s sake, what do you call this? Do it again. Focus on what you’re doing or you’re out of here!’

‘Yes Chef, sorry Chef.’

Greg hit the take off point fast, twisting to his left as soon as his skis hit the air. As the skis came towards the vertical, he pulled his left arm back increasing the speed of rotation. On his first turn, he stared into nothing but sky. On his second, he could see the town nestled in the valley below as the sun sank behind the mountains. He watched for a second as he fell towards the ground then pushed out his skis to absorb the energy as he landed, then set off down for evening service. Down here nobody, up there a King.

Life Without Amazon – a final update

It’s coming up to the end of month five of trying not to buy things from Amazon as a matter of course. I’ve been a good boy. Here’s the latest update with a bit more context and how it’s working out now the novelty has worn off.

Why Do this?

Since the last update, I’ve read up more widely and developed how I rationalise it. There are two reasons to choose from.

Here’s the ‘negative’ argument.

Amazon’s UK subsidiary paid £2.4m in corporation taxes despite making sales of £4.3bn and receiving Government subsidies in Scotland of £2.5m. Many multinational companies continue to operate perfectly legal tax avoidance schemes on a staggering scale. There has been lots of rhetoric and handwringing but there seems little sign of EU Governments doing anything practical to change tax laws.

The other question of course is how much tax should Amazon being paying? Tax is based on profit and there is little doubt that Amazon’s profit is an interesting subject.

In the meantime, Amazon continue to enjoy an unfair advantage over UK businesses, including small independent shops, which provide exactly the same goods and services. This means less tax revenue from them which in turn leads to the closure of libraries, cuts in education, welfare etc which disadvantage the poor and in particular children.

Again I would stress Amazon is not doing anything illegal. However, whilst companies can choose to arrange their tax affairs how they wish (providing it’s legal), consumers also have the right to judge companies on their arrangements and choose, if they so wish, to place their business with companies that make a fairer contribution to society.

It’s down to each of us to decide whether they are happy to fill their boots (Kindles) with cheap books and hope it’ll be alright in the end. I have come round to the view that whilst I may get a ‘cheap’ book quickly, someone else in the UK may not have access to books as a result (my local library is shut today as are so many).

Here’s a more ‘positive’ argument that I’m developing

I want to see books (and writing) continue to be part of a rich arts culture in the UK and not just be a form of retail. To do that, we need a culture that pays creatives properly for their work, provides genuine choice for readers and creates an environment that encourages writing and writers. I want to deal with people who are passionate about books and not the efficiency of their distribution systems. I want to walk into a bookshop, talk to the owner about what (s)he recommends (and not what (s)he is being paid to recommend) I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise and not based on an algorithm of previous history. I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff as well as those who write bestsellers. Therefore I need to support those enterprises that want to do that too. Because if I don’t, they’re not going to be there, irrespective of how much tax anyone pays.

I’ve come to like the second argument more. Amazon can’t provide all that. They don’t really don’t need my money to survive and I can spend it more positively. It’s a much easier argument as I don’t really need to defend it. I can spend my money how I like!

Here’s how it’s working out in practice.

Physical Books

With experience, it becomes ever easier not to buy from Amazon and I haven’t! Independent bookshops can order books in for collection. Some offer free postage e.g. Big Green Books and others e.g. Belgravia Books will deliver free within the local area. If you don’t have a local bookshop, just adopt one! Find one you like in a nearby city or think about that lovely shop you discovered by the seaside. It might then be there the next time you go there. Talk to the owner, ring them up, email them, tweet them. The advantage of an independent bookstore is that the owner is not bound by any corporate rules so you can negotiate anything you like if they’re willing! The Hive website offers a hybrid scheme whereby you can have a book delivered or posted while supporting a local bookshop

For those who prefer the major stores, Foyles and Waterstones provide both retail and online channels which work well. I’ve also used the Book Depository online store. Another channel not to be neglected, for older books, is the public library. Here in Herts, I can have any book in the Herts system delivered to my local branch for 60p. If you want to read Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ any time soon, it’ll be a long wait but a Flannery O’Connor book I’d been recommended arrived the next working day.

My own preference is to support bookshops that love books and put effort into supporting authors and readers. I went to an event at Big Green Books in Wood Green last night and bought three books. My hometown bookshop continues to stack shelves with books and hopes people will buy them. Independent bookshops still have to work for my custom.

In practice, I’ll probably use a mixture of all the above going forward but with a strong preference for independents. I am spending approximately the same amount of money on books as I used to but putting more money back overall into the UK economy through making more considered choices.

The really good news is that the demise of the bookshop is not inevitable. Where I live in Hertfordshire, two new shops selling children’s books have opened in recent weeks; one in Hertford (‘Leaf Café’) and one in Brookmans Park (‘Tuffets’, owned by Tim and Simon who run Big Green Bookshop).

E-Books

Since the last update, I haven’t bought any from Amazon. There was only one book not available in physical form I wanted and I’m pleased to say it was available on Kobo.

The main problem with ebooks continues to be digital rights management. If you buy a Kindle, it needs Kindle format books which inevitably lures you into the Amazon eco system. I used to have a Kindle paper e-reader but replaced it (it broke after just 18 months) with a iPad (other tablets are available). This means I can buy books from anywhere. I haven’t done a complete due diligence on Kobo yet, but I’ve heard an interview with the Kobo CEO and read this interview. It seems to have a reasonable business ethos which, at the moment, is probably good enough for me given the very limited number of ebooks I buy. Waterstones and Foyles also offer an extensive ebook range. According to the Waterstones website, ebooks in Kindle format will be available in 2013.

The upshot is that as long as you don’t tie yourself into a Kindle, the ease and convenience of buying ebooks is available from other retailers.

Photography and other non book stuff mainly cheap plastic crap from China

Again nothing bought, but the temptation to buy from Amazon rather than search for an alternative is strong, just for convenience. I’m getting better at using the right search terms now though so it’s getting easier. In reality, it takes about 5-10 mins to find something at a similar price. Amazon is not always the cheapest.

Authors & Publishers

Rather than listing Amazon as an alternative, authors, publishers and reviewers continue to link lazily and exclusively to Amazon on social media rather than giving alternatives. They also reduce their own royalties and profit margins in the process.  There are bound to be people who want to buy from Amazon but simply listing Amazon amongst 3 or 4 options, rather than exclusively, would make an enormous difference without limiting choice. It still staggers me that authors, publishers and bookshops fail to support each other then moan about the dominance of Amazon.

In terms of self published work, Amazon aren’t the only publishing platform so self published authors can and should provide an alternative if they’re thinking about their own long term interests. Otherwise they may find their royalties further reduced and have no alternative outlet.

Conclusions

To be honest, when I started this, I had the worry that this would be the literary equivalent of ‘The Good Life’ [look it up on Wikipedia, kids]. It’s taken a bit of time but now I’ve worked out what to do, there’s really not much to it so this is the last time I intend to blog on the subject unless circumstances change. I may add the odd update to the comments section.

I miss the cardboard packaging from Amazon which composted nicely but other than that, there’s not much else and I’m enjoying buying and reading books more. If you want to do the same, the process is really just figuring out which is best for you and trying them out until you find something that works for you. Hopefully this post and the previous one takes out a lot of time in finding possible alternatives but you’ll need to research your own local bookshops but let’s face, wandering around a bookshop isn’t really a chore, is it?

If, having read all this, you choose to buy from Amazon, it’s up to you. But if you see people losing their jobs or a bookshop replaced by Poundland in the future, don’t say it’s a shame and it was inevitable. The future’s not inevitable. There were good alternatives available and you just couldn’t be arsed.

The future of books rests in our hands (and buying fingers). Choose wisely.

That Voice Again

Another Friday Flash, this story was published on the Flashflood April 2013.

That Voice Again

 This train is for Kings Cross. The next station is Potters Bar.

Anna rested her head upon Dave’s shoulder as the train pulled into the station. The platform looked busy for a Saturday morning, more like rush hour.

The doors opened and the people streamed on board.

‘There’s seats over there.’

Dave winced. No doubt who it was. He hoped she’d sit somewhere else. Some hope.

This train is for Kings Cross calling at Finsbury Park and Kings Cross only

‘Hello Dave. Fancy seeing you here. Hi Anna.’

‘Hello Sadie.’

Dave felt Anna’s grip tighten on his hand and her fingernails sink into the top of his palm. Anna said nothing but now sat bolt upright. The two women glared at each other. Dave expected to see a layer of frost form on the carriage window.

‘Oh, this is Steve, by the way,’ said Sadie.

Dave thought about shaking hands but then thought better of it and nodded at him. Steve nodded back. He knew who Dave was and was determined to keep out of the conversation if at all possible.

‘So how have you been, Dave? Haven’t seen you for ages.’

‘Yeah, I’ve…we’ve moved’ said Dave.

‘We’re engaged.’ Anna unclasped her fingers from his, held her hand out, wiggling her fingers and smiling without baring her teeth.

‘Oh congratulations, how lovely. Steve and I were thinking of moving in together, weren’t we Steve?’

Steve nodded. Poor sod, thought Dave. At first it had been great until he and Sadie moved in together. He’d soon found out that Sadie couldn’t do anything without starting an argument. Dave sometimes wondered if Sadie could argue with her own shadow. Still Steve looked a patient man. He’d need to be.

This train is for Kings Cross. The next station is Finsbury Park.

‘I expect you need to get off here, Dave. I know you have that thing of not wanting to look at the Emirates.’

‘He’s fine, chirped Anna ‘and besides we need to go to Kings Cross anyway, remember?

Dave stared at Anna. What the hell was she playing at? Of course, he wanted to get off here and why did they need to go to Kings Cross? Anna stared back defying him to argue. ‘Yeah, ‘course I remember.’

This train is for Kings Cross. The next station is Kings Cross where this train will terminate.

The group settled into an uncomfortable silence. Dave stared out of the window and glared at the stadium as it approached. He hated Arsenal but he knew Anna hated Sadie more so he kept quiet. He looked back towards Sadie and then back to Anna. He knew this would ruin the day. Anna would be monosyllabic most of the day and there’d be an argument on the way home over something trivial.

This is Kings Cross where this train terminates. Please remember to take all your belongs with you when you leave the train.

No choice, thought Dave. No choice.

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