Authors for the Philippines

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I wanted to take this opportunity to share the amazing Authors For The Philippines auction site.

On Friday 8th November, Typhoon Haiyan tore its brutal way across the Philippines killing thousands and leaving more homeless. The devastation is beyond our comprehension and, as time goes on, the massive impact of this catastrophe becomes even more evident. The people of the Philippines desperately need our help, and last week dozens of authors rallied to the cause and donated their time and creative materials to this incredible auction. This auction is by no means just for the super-rich and you can get some amazing things, and know that you are helping people too.

Please have a browse and put your bids in before 8pm GMT Weds 20th November. You can bid from any country but remember postage and all bids must be in GBP. You can bid as an individual, group, or maybe a school or community organisation.

Have a good browse through – but here is a small selection of what’s on offer at the moment!

A signed and doodled in copy of Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Two places at a swanky literary lunch in North London with goodie bags and lots of booky talk.

Signed books and a character name in the next book from top YA author James Dawson Very cool thing to have!

Character names in the next book by Caroline Smailes How amazing to actually have your name in someone’s book!

I also love all the original artwork in this auction – pieces from Axel Scheffler, Adrian Reynolds, Clara Vulliamy and loads more.

If you are bidding for a school, you can bid for an author visit from superb writers like Catherine McPhail, Candy Gourlay, Teri Terry, Mo O’Hara, Tony Bradman, Niel Bushnell, Lucy Coats, Nicky Singer… Oh the list is long and impressive!

So have a good look around, and bid.
You won’t regret it!

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The Unexplained

I don’t have any particular faith, not what you’d call an organised one anyway. I write about ghosts, but I wouldn’t class myself as a true believer. I do, however, love to read about things that can’t be explained. These days that means a subscription to the always fascinating Fortean Times , but when I was thirteen it was The Unexplained.

First published by Orbis Publishing in 1980 it was an early part-work that carried the full title of The Unexplained: Mysteries of Mind, Space and Time.
What a tag line!

I was hooked from the very first tv advert. Hot on the heels of tv shows like Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World it covered all aspects of matters unexplained. The first issue dealt with UFOs and had the most wonderful photographs of sightings. In those pre-internet days it was nigh on impossible to find articles about things like this, they were reserved for crack-pots in obscure self-published niche magazines. Now I could just buy it from the newsagent and carry it around in my school bag. And I did, and read it aloud to my friends with dramatic emphasis on key points.

Issue one was thrilling – Man Beasts, Close Encounters and Kirilian Auras! This was a time long before Photoshop allowed everyone to dismiss things instantly. I sat with a magnifying glass squinting at blurry images trying to see strings.
And the issue about Spontaneous Human Combustion still haunts me! I remember lying in bed wondering if my feet were just hot, or if I was about to combust.
And ghosts! Oh the wonderful ghost stories and sightings that the magazine covered in great detail – just the perfect reading material.

They never tried to fully explain these stories, they simply told you the facts as they understood them to be, and let you make up your own mind. I’ve never really wanted to know if these were true or not. I’m no fool, but sometimes I think that life is more interesting if there are some things we don’t know. Does it matter? I know, for example, that magicians don’t really have magical powers, but that doesn’t stop me enjoying the show. I don’t want to know how it’s done, it’s enough to have the mystery and the momentary suspension of disbelief.

As for what I believe? Well I want to believe that there is a world that exists out of the corner of my eye, that there is something…magical? Maybe?
That’s the world of faery tales, fantasy and fiction – and it’s a wonderful place to hang out. I’ll see you there…..

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In Remembrance

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I wanted to post something for Remembrance Day, and found the whole process to be far more upsetting than I anticipated – but I suppose that is the point.

About a decade ago I was caught up in researching family history and filling in a few gaps in the family tree. It was a well known story in my family that my grandfather’s brothers – William and Joseph – left England in 1912 to seek their fortunes as opal miners in Australia. The family had a mining history, and the boom in opal mining in Australia seemed a golden opportunity for the boys.
It was, and they did find opals and wrote home excitedly about them, and how they would be home soon. Sadly it was easier to get to Australia, than it was to get back and the boys struggled to find passage. They decided that their best way of finding a way home was to join up and serve in the army – they became ANZACs and wrote home about how they would fight for their country and then come home with the opals. They were keen to due their duty and their letters home told their family all about how they would soon be home.

War broke out in 1914 and the boys found themselves posted together and shipped out – to Africa. Not quite home yet but they were together and stayed together as they completed their training. Three years later and they were still together and on another troop ship, this time heading for France.

I can’t help but think how excited they must have felt in that cramped troop ship as they discovered they were heading to France – almost home, just a short sail across the water….

They never made it home.

Both boys were killed on the Somme. Joseph suffered horrendous injuries that forced the field surgeons to remove his legs. William’s trench was hit with massive shelling, and he died instantly. Joseph died a few days later at the Front of infection and blood loss. The opals were never found.

I discovered most of this information from the records held by the National Archive Office of Australia. My grandfather gave me permission to search and the NAA respectfully warned me that the information I found might be distressing.
They were not wrong.

Their records are extensive and detailed and I found not only the hand-written reports of the field doctors and the Australian Red Cross, but scans of the bloodstained tags from their bodies.
It was during this research that I accidentally stumbled upon the fact that the boys had been misidentified as each other. Somehow their field identification had been mixed up, one brother was taller than the other, and by that time in a different battalion. They were still close, but briefly separated on the Front. Up to that point they had always been together and so eye witnesses had mixed them up. Their injuries meant that identification became confused.

This meant that the boys were buried under the wrong stones in the Somme cemetery, and I was contacted by the War Graves Commission to ask if the family would like this corrected. I thought about this for a long time, and decided not to tell my grandfather. It would have meant a lot of form-filling and re-dedication of the stones and I didn’t want to put him through that. Instead I kept it to myself.

My grandfather loved his big brothers to the end and remembered them as brave boys who fought and died for their family. It was enough to remember them, and to know that they were still together. I never told him about all this, and I don’t regret that decision. I wanted to leave his memories as they were.

This is what Remembrance Day is about. It should not be about glorifying war, and never about an enforced public statement via poppy display, it’s about taking the time to remember. For me it’s about knowing that a great sadness still sits in my family’s past, and the past of all of us, and that it’s important to take some time to remember. It should always be about remembering that in cold, silent earth lie thousands upon thousands of young men who died for what they believed in. They died for their families, and we should not demean that or sully it with political statements or warmongering bias or by hurling statements around about it being meaningless. It wasn’t meaningless to them and their families. Two boys, trying to get home.

My grandfather’s brothers lie side by side, as close in death as they were in life, forever intertwined in earth, bone and name. Gone, but not forgotten.

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What’s in the Crazy Bay today?

This gallery contains 11 photos.

My friends on Facebook will be familiar with the joys of the Crazy Bay, but I’ll take a minute to explain. There is a certain large supermarket near my writing hideaway in Aberdeenshire which has a section of shelving that defies description. Some of the items are reduced, but most are still full price – […]

What price live music?

I have a large number of musician friends and so the conversation about the price of gig tickets has come up many times over the years. It seems that the general perception is that gig tickets are expensive.
Are they? Really?
Let’s have a little think about that….

Firstly, putting on a gig is incredibly expensive. The venue requires a great deal of sound equipment, licenses, power and insurance and then of course there is the advertising – and that’s all before the bands arrive. Now some of you will say “but the venue has that already!” Yes, and it magically maintains itself and replaces by growing out of the musical equipment patch at the back of the venue. No, really.

Then there are the bands. Ok so let’s assume this is a smaller gig with semi-professional (i.e “I have to work in another job for a living as well as do this”) musicians. Let’s also assume that there are three bands playing at our imaginary gig, say 15 or so musicians in all. They’ve had to travel to the gig, transporting their equipment too and so the travel costs will be quite extensive. They are probably going to have had some advertising costs of their own, and we’re not going to take into account their general expenses such as equipment maintenance and rash and indulgent things like eating.

So we are starting to see how expensive this all is. Chances are the bands will be offered a fee that would make people on minimum wage feel flush, or they’ll take a cut from the door. After the venue takes their expenses, and the money is split fifteen ways through the three bands, they’ll be lucky to cover a bit of petrol, a pint and some chips.

And yet the audience at our imaginary gig have had a great time and a good few hours of entertainment for less than it costs for a takeaway pizza. It is interesting that people balk at spending £10 – £15 for a gig ticket, and yet are comfortable spending multiples of that on a round of drinks.

I loathe the idea that just because someone enjoys what they do they should not be paid fairly for it. I’m pretty sure that each and every professional footballer enjoys what they do, and it doesn’t stop them being paid tens of thousands of pounds for the pleasure. Musicians and all creative people have every right to be paid a fair wage for what they do. Haven’t you enjoyed it out there in the audience watching people sweat at their art for your sakes?

There has also been a lot of talk about the cost of festival tickets. Let’s take Download 2014 for example. £200 (or a shade under) does sound pretty expensive to camp out in a noisy and muddy field – but look at what you get for that! You could see a band every hour for ten hours straight (or more, but I’m simplifying it a bit – you might want some sleep) so maybe watching thirty bands or so over the weekend. That means you are averaging £6 a band, amazing value – and the cost of putting on a festival is astronomical.

£10 to £15 for a gig ticket is nothing, really, think about it. What can you get for that? How many times have you blown a tenner and not even noticed?

What will your standard night out in the pub involve? £10 will get you two pints and some crisps in a London pub (if you’re lucky) and you might spend £50 or more at the bar on the whole? £15 a curry or takeaway on the way home? £10 a taxi instead of walking? And the only entertainment you’ve had is watching the drunks in the taxi queue?

Live music is life-enhancing and liberating. There is nothing like the soul-lifting joy of feeling the pulse of a good band throb up through your feet. The atmosphere, the sounds, the whole scene is just something that needs to be experienced, particularly in smaller venues where the music really feels live (unlike huge ones that farm you in, plug you into machine generated sounds, and then farm you out again)

Do yourself a favour, find out where live music is going on around you and get out there. Chuck less of your night out down your throat, and throw a bit more in your ears.
You won’t regret it.

Shameless plugs here for some great local music venues…and bands worth seeing at them…

Check out Trashville – a collective of superb bands (no wedding singers here!)

A personal bias and I’m linking to The Metatrons Trust me on this, you won’t regret it!

Club 85 in Hitchin

The Horn, St Albans

The Good Ship, Kilburn

The Bedford Esquires

If you have other local venues (local to you!) who specialise in good and original live music – please add in the comments below. I get a pretty good hit rate on this blog and I’m happy to share. I’ll check every link before approving, and I warn you now I’m not keen on those venues that only have cover version bands.

Trolls need not apply….

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I do love a good Bath.

This gallery contains 8 photos.

I’m having a little break in Bath and so (obviously) the first thing to do is head out in search of a good bookshop, and I found real gem. Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights lives up to its name completely. This is gorgeous bookshop is three floors of pure literary pleasure. The bookshop has […]

Tardis Destinations – Part One

This will be a recurring theme on my blog. I’d like to introduce you to some of the amazing sights that we have missed out on simply by being born too late.
If I had a Tardis, these would be the places I would visit….

To start us off – Cafe de L’Enfer, Paris

L’Enfer was an infernal hell-themed establishment, with a heavily sculpted demonic facade. It opened in the late 19th century in the fashionably seedy red light district of Paris and rivalled the Moulin Rouge in attracting the dangerously decadent young set of Paris. The scandalously rich and glamorous young Parisians who managed to secure admission to L’Enfer enjoyed devilish drinks and even more devilish company. The clientele spent evenings with many “attractions diabolique” but, as the evenings were deeply clandestine, little is known about what this entailed.

It is known that the waiters were dressed as devils, and the doorman (Satan, of course) welcomed members with a cheering “Enter and be damned!” The interior was elaborately constructed to resemble the pit of hell with demons and tortured souls reaching out from the ceiling to those seated below. Those who entered were warned (by capering imps dressed in scarlet) that the heat inside the inferno would make them thirsty, and so they should be prepared to drink well…and be wicked.

By the early 20th century the Cafe had vanished, the facade stripped and never found again. A few fragments remain from the interior and can be found at the Musee de la Magie in Paris, but the rest is confined to whispers and stories.

What happened at L’Enfer, stayed at L’Enfer….

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Comic genius.

As a children’s librarian I was often dismayed when parents asked “they only read comics, how can we stop them?”
WHAT?? Why would you want to? Comics are amazing!

As I kid I loved comics. I mean I really loved them. I read hundreds of books, but those were mainly from the library and so they were not my possessions. They were read, loved, and returned – but I owned comics. Actually, that’s only partially true – I hoarded them, bought them from jumble sales, swapped stuff for them, ran to the sweet shop for the next one. I had piles of them, huge and ever growing mounds of comics of all types. Oh how I looked forward to the Summer Special with its glossy cover and extra thick bumper set of stories.

Comics expanded my descriptive vocabulary massively – who knew I’d need words like scrunge, boink, splurge and spackle?! (Oh, but not in an Urban Dictionary sense, they are hell-bent on ruining some of my favourite comic-based words)
Why anyone would want to stop their child reading comics is beyond me. It’s all about words in context, and comics and all visual story-forms are a superb way to get people reading. They are especially good for people who might not feel that traditional books are for them. They are incredibly useful for anyone trying to learn another language, and I’ve seen teachers of EAL pupils have genuine “by George, he’s got it!” moments whilst using comics.

But enough with the educational reasons, I could prattle (another classic comic word there) for ages about the linguistic and literary importance of the comic construct… but the simple fact is that they are wonderful.

In a comic we are taken by the hand to a visual world that allows our imagination to expand way beyond its usual capabilities. We see things that we might not have conjured up without a bit of visual assistance, and yet there is still room for our own wild imaginations to add to the mix. That’s something that does not happen with a movie or a game, they’ve done all the thinking for us. Comics provide the reader with a jumping off point, and then we can tumble into the story at our own velocity.

I grew up on a steady diet of Buster (I was such a fan I even named my cat after this comic) The Beano and Whizzer and Chips
Then I wanted something a little more grown up and moved on to slavish devotion to the superb writing and illustrating in 2000AD. This lead to the inevitable move to graphic novels and then on to discovery of the genius of people like Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller.
I won’t lie to you – comics are a gateway drug. If you allow your kids to read comics it will lead to something stronger and they will get addicted. It’s just that simple.

I suggest you start them on something superbly written, deeply entertaining and rewarding – and I’m pitching for The Phoenix
If you haven’t heard of it yet, you are missing out. It really is the most wonderful creation by some of the best names in the business. It’s smart, funny and with genuine crossover appeal (if you are not nicking it to read before your kids I’ll eat my hat.) Both the website and the app are brilliant too as they add to the enjoyment between issues.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Monster Fun ahead of me.

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