Tuesday, 30 June 2015

How To Write A Book

© me, 1996 - Drawn with the ClarisWorks word processor, lost when Geocities went belly-up, and found today using the Wayback Machine.

Step 1. Motivation:

Step 2. Decision:

Step 3. Action:

Step 4. Characterisation:

Step 5. Form:
(a) Every story should have a beginning.
For example, here is the beginning of my autobiography

(b) From here, move on to the middle.

Now do the end.

Step 6.

Friday, 5 June 2015

If The Russians Had Won The Cold War

If the Russians had won the cold war
There’d be peace throughout the land
There would be no austerity
Just a glorious five year plan
All the bankers would be miners
And profits/prophets would be banned
If the Russians had won
If the Russians had won

In the ministry of Industry
You might cast a glance at me
And I might be looking your way
There’s just a chance our eyes would meet
The red flag would fly above us
There’d be the sound of marching feet
If the Russians had won
If the Russians had won

We’d gather in the market square
Men and women, girls and boys
From speakers tied to lamp posts
We’d hear the leader’s voice
Telling of great victories
And we’d all damned well rejoice
If the Russians had won
If the Russians had won

If the Russians had won the cold war
I’d have asked you to marry me
We’d honeymoon in a cold grey room
In a hotel by the sea
And one day I’d tell our children
About the way it used to be
Before the Russians won
If the Russians had won
If the Russians had won

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Burning The Heather

(download as a PDF)

My father was a collector. The shelves lining the walls of our seven-bedroom end-terrace were full without exception, and he was creative in finding space for new ones. When there was no room left because of the fixtures and fittings, he added bookshelves at angles, sectioned with spacers so that the books at the bottom didn’t get squashed. His prodigious shelving constricted the corridors so that they felt like rabbit-runs. The house was a warren anyway, consisting as it did of two former shops - a grocer’s, a hairdresser’s and their adjoining flats - knocked through at the upstairs landing. When he bought the old salon, Bonat dryers were still attached to the wall in a row like astronauts’ helmets. For a while, my sister and I used them as such, sticking our heads inside them and repeating the one small step for man speech and Houston, we have a problem. Frances, being two years older and female, tired of the game before I did, and instead gave herself a vicious scalp burn when she tried to put one to its intended use.

That might have been the first time Mum left him - he was supposed to have been looking after us and had left us to fend for ourselves. Frances and I were packed into the car with only a duffel bag each. We stayed in a guest house on the Radcliffe Road, a quarter of a mile from home - we needn’t really have taken the car, but perhaps she thought we’d have refused to go with her on foot. We could still walk to school, and saw our father again that Saturday. I think I stayed with him for a few days while Frances didn’t, and then we all moved back the weekend after.

I make the incident sound minor, its resolution inevitable, but it didn’t seem like that at all. Frances blamed herself. I blamed her too. Presumably my father blamed the hairdryers: when I came home from school the night before Mum and Frances returned home, Dad was covered in dust, the new rooms had been hoovered spotless, and all the junk remaining from the hairdresser’s shop was in a skip parked on the road outside. He showered for nearly an hour, gave me my tea - his special spaghetti bolognese with lots of bacon in it - and then left me alone in the house with the television on. There were only three channels then, and contrary to contemporary opinion, there was little in the way of sex and violence to enjoy, so I put myself to bed early with milk and a biscuit.

Before long, he shelved that room too. He filled three walls with books - first edition hardbacks, yellow-edged American genre paperbacks, a complete twelfth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica with post-WW1 addenda - and one with kitschy cinema memorabilia - magazines with Audrey Hepburn on the cover, Star Wars figurines of possible late-1970s vintage, framed postcards of posters from the French new wave (incalculably cool images advertising unwatchably dull films, if you ask me).

We left six times in all, over the course of ten years, mostly for a week or two, longer as it went on. Mum never told me why. At first I just thought it was what grown-ups did - that she was fed up with him, that they had fallen out in the way that children do. Later I wondered if she was angry about Dad’s hopelessly lax parenting. There is no doubt that he was awful - not malicious, he never raised a hand to either of us, but Frances and I got the attention from him that one would normally give a pair of amusing kittens: he fussed us a bit, played the odd game, fed us when necessary, if he didn’t forget - and then he would leave us on our own, including when Mum specifically asked him to stay in and look after us. When I started going to friends’ houses and seeing what appeared to be bare walls everywhere - and more instructively, seeing my friends’ faces when confronted with the sheer quantity of things in our house - I began to wonder if Mum was trying to escape Dad’s book-and-tat collection.

Later still I realised - or rather Frances told me, sitting me down on a kitchen chair because by then I was taller than her, speaking very slowly, her face very close to mine - that the real reason Mum kept leaving Dad was because Dad was carrying on with other women. I was probably doing the loose-lipped expression that teenagers use to indicate deliberate incomprehension, because she put both hands on my shoulders and made me look at her.

“Please take this in. He sleeps with them. He stays at their houses. That’s why he’s never here.”

Before e-Bay and before formalised boot sales, collecting required mobility, tenacity and opportunism. Dad could assess an Oxfam shop in seconds, his eyes darting about the room ready to home in on treasure hidden in plain sight, and then if he found nothing, he had no compunction about leaving before the shop door had closed on his arrival. Charity shops always seemed to come in threes, and he could do a street in ten minutes, unless something caught his eye and then he wouldn’t leave until he had been through everything. On Sundays he would leave in the small hours to go to markets, the more remote and impromptu the better, because that was where the bargains were. Sometimes I went with him. On arrival, he would let me go off on my own - I was more interested in the burger vans than the stalls - and when it was time to go, he would whistle me like a dog. He read Exchange and Mart from cover to cover, and he subscribed to a long list of local newspapers covering an area bounded by Sheffield, Peterborough, Birmingham and Lincoln - which were as far as he liked to drive for a single transaction. On small-ads day, he would give these a close reading, looking for details that the seller might have missed or misinterpreted. He kept up an cross-referencing system using index cards which he kept in a miniature filing cabinet from a doctor’s surgery, that enabled him to identify sellers by phone number or PO Box number. There were people to whom he returned time and time again, buying first edition books at jumble sale prices because they didn’t know what they were selling. I wondered for ages why they didn’t get suspicious when he kept turning up on their doorsteps, until I realised that he had been taking his mistresses along to collect the goods for him.

Frances keeps trying to make a connection between our father’s collecting and his womanising. I tell her that yes, I can see what she means - if you like, he collected women, and that’s about it for the analogy - but actually no, they were not the same thing. Oh come on, she says, don’t be so blind. 

What I don’t say, because I love my big sister and don’t want to hurt her feelings, and because I’m a little afraid of her when she kicks off, is that she’s a fine one to talk. She has gone through three or four times as many men as Dad went through women, but is completely the opposite of him when it comes to collecting. She doesn’t hang onto anything. Her sparsely-furnished Lace Market conversion with exposed metalwork contains a single bookcase that is far from full, a laptop, a television, and a bare minimum of high-quality furniture. Beside her bed there is a picture of herself and the latest chap, thickset with middle-age and striking a pose that is too young for them, with one of the Eiffel Tower’s feet behind them. Above the gas fire in the big, open-plan living area - where she would perhaps put a picture of her children if she had any - is one of me at about ten years old, sitting on the dining room floor in the old house, surrounded by presents and wrapping paper, and wearing a huge, crooked-toothed grin. It was the first picture she took with a new camera that Mum and Dad had given her for Christmas. I’m quite touched that having thrown nearly everything out over the years, she considers a seven-by-five of me worth saving. There’s nothing of Mum or Dad. Otherwise, if she’s got pictures, they’re on her phone, and that stays in her handbag. Surely, I want to say, her serial picking up and discarding men is surely a better parallel with her refusal to keep hold of anything beyond its time of immediate usefulness than the one involving our father and his incorrigible collecting.

That would hurtful to Frances even if I wasn’t being primly judgemental about her private life. Dad passed away three months ago, and she misses him more than I do. She moved back to town after Mum died, and they became quite close. Having pieced together anecdotes and gossip, I’m guessing he didn’t start playing away until after I was born, so she probably had more time with him at the imprinting stage, if such a thing exists. Mum took longer to get over having me than she did with Frances - so I was told, by Mum in her declining years. If she meant that in the way I think she did, then that would have left him frustrated, one would suppose. Frances probably knows more but that’s another conversation we don’t need to have. We can’t change any of it, our parents are in the grave, and she and I have a houseful of erratically valuable shit to box up and put in storage, before we can even think of selling the house itself.

Sorted, catalogued and individually sold, Dad’s collection should generate a small fortune - and so it bloody well should; he blew our inheritance and screwed up our childhoods acquiring it. Starting with a book, at random - no, not at random - let’s have a look at Thunderball, my favourite James Bond book. A first edition? Probably. Slight foxing on the jacket, I will have to concede - that’s yellow bits at the edge of the paper cover. The picture is a tasteless rendition of a skeleton holding a pontoon hand pinned to a card table by a knife. It might be a first edition but the Bond books were hugely popular when it came out, and presentation was already degenerating into self-parody - as evidenced by the author’s credit ‘Fleming’. It’s not actually that good a book, as I notice leafing through it, finding passages that are familiar to the point of being ingrained on me, but aren’t half as well-written as the equivalent set-pieces that one finds in the earlier books. I read the paperback, which I got in Help The Aged for ten pence. It was better than trying to read something that I was barely allowed to touch. A quick check on e-Bay, and I see that I’m looking at a couple of hundred pounds if we’re lucky, a quarter of that if we’re not. A first edition Casino Royale can go for thousands, I notice - and there seems to be one on the shelf. Its jacket is pretty wrecked though. Without counting them I’m confident we have the full collection - of Flemings - thank Christ he didn’t get into the John Gardners or, heaven help us, the Charlie Higsons. Selling this pile of pulp is going to be a huge undertaking, and the person who would have been the most help has just died. The only way I can do it is to research every piece individually - in our brave new information age, an hour per item at most - but there are hundreds of books on this wall alone, and the rest of the house is full of the damned things.

I hear the laboured sound of a car engine. That will be Frances, edging into the driveway. I would go out and help her, shout if she was too close to the wall, wave my arms about to direct her, but the weight of all this stuff is pressing on me so much that I can’t lift myself off the floor. How did we live with it all those years? How did we cope with a man who filled our home with crap and then bought the next-door house in which to store even more if it?

Mum said: When they met, he had a London flat of his own - unheard of for a boy of his age. Everyone else she knew lived in Halls of Residence or in lodgings. She was reading English at UCL, and lodged with a woman who wouldn’t let her have her own key to the lodgings because - and bear in mind this was 1965, not 1925 - young ladies need protecting from themselves. They went to see Help! on their second date, and she wondered later if that was where he got the idea for knocking small houses together to make one big one.

He always had his things, she said, a little bookcase full of treasures from his childhood - picture books, annuals, chessmen, figurines - that he had carried around in a suitcase and added to, all the time he had been at boarding school. He used old school tie connections to find work in the City. A little too awkward personally to be dealing with customers, he settled in naturally to the business of actual buying and selling - which was how he could afford his own place at nineteen. Had he stayed in that world, he would have been in his mid-thirties when the City was deregulated, and he might have become fantastically wealthy. Instead, Mum fell pregnant with Frances, which arguably proved her landlady right. They got married and moved to Nottingham to be near her parents. Mum’s many volumes of English literature remained - and remain - separate from the main body of the collection.

Dad cut his hair so as not to scare the natives. He learned from Mum a few stock pleasantries to cover his natural abrasiveness, turned up the heat on his public school accent, and set about building up a local client base for the broker who had kept him on the payroll in the hope of expanding his business nationally. Mum taught him well; he became quite charming. By the time Frances was born, he had a full appointments book, and the broker was sorting him out a company car. Meanwhile, in accordance with tradition, Mum gave up drinking and smoking on account of the child. Dad started going out at night on his own.

“I’m new here,” he would say. “Just getting the hang of the place.”

Going to the new discotheques and openly picking up girls wasn’t his style, yet. An arts cinema had opened, and was showing everything French and Italian, black and white and sexy. He fancied himself an Alain Delon character, a youthful metropolitan exiled to the provinces but still smoking the right cigarettes and wearing the coolest loafers. He bought posters on postcards to remind him of his adopted identity. If that wasn’t enough, he bought the books from which the films had been adapted, and then he would get the author’s other books. He always read them - Mum would say that in his defence. 

The cardboard cutout Humphrey Bogarts and the James Bond Dinky cars came later. I remember that starting. Given that he was already sleeping around, had a flash car, and had never stopped going out on the town, collecting toys and juvenile souvenirs was one of the few outlets he had left for exhibiting symptoms of a midlife crisis. That was when he started replacing thumbed and bed-read paperbacks with pristine first edition hardbacks.

When Frances comes in, I still haven’t made it onto my feet.

“Hello,” she says. “You’ve not got far, then. Where are the boxes?”

“We can’t just box these up and dump them. There’s a lot of money here.”

“And there’s half a million in the house, less the cost of splitting it up. Let’s have that instead.”

I am a primary school teacher, unofficially specialising in science and after-school sports, which used to make me popular with the head and the governors, who are forever looking for potential male rôle models who might get through to underachieving boys. I am presently off work with stress, but intend to return next term, doctor willing. Frances is an estate agent, so I bow to her expertise when it comes to valuing property.

“They’re in the van.”

“Well get down to the van and fetch them in here! I’ll be piling.”

“Keep the collections together, please. Come on, it’s not hard, a box of Du Mauriers, a box of Steinbecks.”

“Just the hardbacks.”

“No, all of them.”

“You’re joking. These ones... why did he buy this? AE van Vogt. Who is AE van Vogt? Have you ever read anything of his?”


“Are you going to, ever? No, you’re too old. Neither of us is going to live long enough to read... let me count...”

There was a long pause while she counted.

“... thirty-nine books by the same bloke, and don’t tell me a bookshop is going to take... hang on... The Prawns of Null-A.”

Pawns. I can see it from here.”

“These want dumping. Get the boxes.”

I open the back of the Transit van that I have hired, and retrieve a few of the lined banana boxes that were supplied with it. Frances, I want to tell her, he read them all. I can hear the kids at St Mary’s, outside for morning break. Good-natured but with enough of a frenzied edge that the mood could turn on a small incident. You get a feel for the tone. I realise after a moment, after a few moments, after a long time in fact, that I haven’t moved; I’m still standing at the  gate with three banana boxes piled up in my arms, the van doors wide open. That kind of thing was happening too often at school. The smarter, nastier kids were noticing, and you can’t get it back from there.

I’m thinking: This could all be mine, Pawns of Null-A and all. All I have to do is get Frances to sign away her rights, and I could wallow in it for as long as I like - as long as Dad did. I could read the books - A to Z by author; or by genre, a year of murder mysteries, then a year of space fantasy. I could catalogue the collection and find out where it is lacking, then head out to boot sales and book fairs myself, and in time complete Dad’s great work.  could sell them one at a time and live off the proceeds for the rest of my life. No more teaching; no need to deal with kids again, in any capacity. Something catches my eye.

“Fran! You made me jump.”

“How long have you been standing there? Come on, it’s going to take days at this rate.”

“All right.”

“Or I get the clearance people in.”


“Come on then.”

Faced with full shelves, I can’t bring myself just to pick up a book and read it. I never could. I’ve read a lot of these books but only when Dad or Frances had them out. in situ there were too many, the rooms and corridors too crowded and dark. Not to mention that if I get one out now, Frances will start snapping at my heels again. She has cleared three shelves and is collecting the paperbacks into the boxes. I’m not dumping them, but they are going to the charity shop - in her name so that they can claim Gift Aid, she being a taxpayer (me being a malingerer). I leave the boxes with her and fetch some more for myself.

I was quite a performer in my early days of teaching. I had a knack for getting the kids interested in the simpler concepts of physics and chemistry. They were too young for moles and valences, but they got atoms easily enough, and the cleverer ones could manage protons, neutrons and electrons. I wasn’t above using explosions to show the transfer of particles from one structure to another in a chemical reaction, or holding full beakers upside down over children’s heads with only a square of wet card between me and a severe reprimand in order to demonstrate atmospheric pressure. The first ones I taught will be in their early twenties by now. I like to think that there are graduates in the sciences who would otherwise not be, thanks to me inspiring them. There was no particular moment when it changed, no incident with hydrochloric and alkaline earth metals that scarred a child forever, no beaker trick when surface tension failed me and drenched a pupil; I just lost the sense that there was a point to my teaching, that I was giving the kids something that they could work with themselves, and build upon. My lessons became words on the page that I had to impart without knowing exactly why I was doing so. It is possible to continue in that vein for some time, as long as you stick to the lesson plans that you worked out when you did know what you were doing, but once the curriculum changes, you’re lost, and soon you become the dithering teacher that every school has to cover for.

- - -

It took three days of hard graft to get the books and souvenirs boxed up. I had to call the van hire company twice for more boxes. The dark alleyways of the old house have become airy, illuminated avenues. Behind one shelf is a window that we didn’t know was there. I unscrewed a couple of the longer shelves. Frances spread out her arms and put back her head like someone released from captivity.

“You deal with that,” she said, nodding at the latest pile of boxes at the end of the corridor, “and I’ll do the house.”

I drove the collection to the lock-up, piled it up, and took home one box of paperbacks to sell, individually. I haven’t been to the charity shops yet. When we packed this box I saw my copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy which I know is a first edition because I queued up at WH Smith’s to buy it the day it came out, then lost it the day after. I was furious with myself for being so careless, and ended up having to borrow one from the library a year or so later. Dad must have pinched it for his hoard, the selfish bastard. I empty the box, and there it is, staring up at me pristinely. I happen to know, because I was wondering and I looked it up a few minutes ago, that there are Americans - not ones I would ever want to meet - who will pay two thousand dollars for a UK first edition, mint condition, which this one assuredly is, since no one ever got to read it. The cover is shiny and the pages are sharp, thirty five years after they were cut. So much for Mum’s claim that he read all the books he collected.

In order to be financially responsible, I have to think about this for every one of the hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks as well as the hardbacks, the plastic statuettes, the  novelty pencil sharpeners, the signed postcards, the branded pestle and mortar set. Who knows the hidden value here?

I need a drink. I stand up, and realise that the contents of the box - one box - has completely covered my living room floor. Right under my foot is the copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide. I nearly trod on it; I might have bent the spine or torn a page, which would have taken my two thousand dollars down to fifty quid at best. Surrounding it are Douglas Adams’ other books, all of them, probably originals, possibly valuable. None of them are mine because mine are on my bookshelves, on the landing outside my bedroom - and I don’t have the full set.

Dad said: It’s a big world out there, son, and you should go and live in it. I wasn’t sure if he was kicking me out of the house - he wasn’t, he was just making one of his occasional attempts to be a proper father, and thought a serious talk was in order. Frances was at university then, and she seemed to be living in the big world. When we were on our own, she would tell me about the two boyfriends she had on the go at once - I don’t know how it happened, it just did, she explained with gleeful shame; about Easter in Paris with someone else’s boyfriend; about the nights that they all spent staying up, smoking weed and listening to reggae. I’d seen photographs of the murals they’d painted on the walls of their student house. I’ll admit, it sounded great, but I had no idea where to start. The big world was like Dad’s collection, overwhelming and inaccessible.

I went to Paris once though, later on, and I loved it. I enjoyed speaking my terrible O-level French to people, I loved the tourist-trap markets of Montmartre - fake impressionists, Bulgarian accordionists and all. I thought the Eiffel tower was like a toy on a grand scale, plonked in the middle of the city for no obvious reason; I could imagine a giant child picking it up and putting it somewhere else. I bunked in a mixed hostel room, ate in bistros to the sound of pretend jazz, watched a dirty film in a backstreet picture house, browsed books in Shakespeare’s, and came home with a bag of tat, of which a plate depicting the Sacre Coeur survives.

I didn’t mean to end up back here. I’ve lived all around the country, never quite settling. I’ve usually been single, but I’m not a fan of it. When you get older, you tend to meet women who have kids of their own - until you get to my age and their kids have all grown up. For a while I was a research assistant in Oxford, over-qualified, professionally bored witless but happier than I’d been for years: I was living with the lovely Sarah and her two kids who were six and eight. I’d been the lodger, and then we’d got together. All my things were in storage and I was living in the middle of their life, not contributing much except a small wage. I needed to pull my weight, so I started helping out at the kids’ school. The teachers were all women, all arts graduates. Before long I was doing my science-for-kids act, and it went down a storm. I left to train properly as a teacher, which cost me Sarah but gained me a career. I’d moved out and was living in a bed and breakfast when saw a job advertised in Nottingham. Given the circumstances it made sense to come home for a while. I got the job, and a decade later I am still living a mile over the river from the house I grew up in.

The doorbell rings. I decide to ignore it, but one of the other residents has opened the outside door. I hear heavy but nimble footsteps on the stairs - Frances of course. I think about holding my breath and hoping that she thinks I’m out, but I can’t do it. I open the door and brace myself for the reaction when she sees that a box of Dad’s books appears to have exploded in my living room.

“Oh for Heaven’s sake!”

Her tone is more muted than I was expecting, but more disappointed than I can easily cope with.

“Hello Fran.”

“I was coming to tell you that I’ve cleared the house.”

“Well done.”

“I was going to ask you out to dinner to celebrate.”

“But now you’re not, because I’ve let you down, eh?”


“Like all the other times.”

“What other times? No.”

“I was looking for this book.” I pick up the book.

“All right. Shall we put the rest of them away?”

“I’ll do it.”

“You can keep them if you want. You can have all of it. There’s most of the shelves in a skip outside Mum and Dad’s, you can have them too.”

“Don’t, Fran.”

“I mean it.”

“I don’t want them, honestly. I wanted that book. It was mine, he nicked it.”

Despite me, she sits splay-legged on the floor and starts packing up the books. I kneel down and fetch the ones she can’t reach.

“Dinner now?” she asks when I’ve taped up the box.

Over pizza she says: “I’ve used more Polyfilla today than in the rest of my life put together. Every screw-hole, I’ve filled them in. The decorators never get it smooth. I’ve got builders booked for next week, to brick up the joining door. Then it’ll be two coats of magnolia, right through both houses, curtains, kitchen table, coffee tables - you won’t recognise the place.”

“Do I have to see it?”

“No. Do you miss it?”


“Are you going to go back to school?”


“Let’s burn the rest of the books.”


“Come on, it’ll be like burning the heather. We’ll char the moor and make the new shoots grow. I’ve got some matches.”


“When did you last have any fun?” she says.

“That’s not fair.” 

“Tell me what you’re going to do with the money.”

“How should I know?”

“One thing.”

“I’ll... go to Paris.”

“It’s a dump these days. Don’t bother.”


“Come on, one more thing.”

“I don’t know. I like this flat, I’ve got a car. I’d go somewhere else but I’ve no one to go with.  Do you want to go to Berlin? Bring your fella, my treat.”

“I might not bring him, but yes, all right.”

“What’s wrong with him?”

“Frustrated middle-aged man. There’s a lot of them about.”

“No burning though. Get your clearance people in.”

- - -

It’s been a month, and the houses are on the market. One buyer asked if there was a possibility of knocking them through to make one large house. Frances told him she would look into it. The estate agents have an auction room, and we’ll take what we can get for the hardbacks. Frances has made a couple of phone calls to dealers, so with any luck there will be a bit of competition. We’ll still miss out on our fortune, but I think Berlin’s paid for. I took the paperbacks and the knickknacks to the charity shop. I have no control over what happens to them after that, but I’ve done my bit for the environment. A couple of weeks later I was in Help The Aged and saw the van Vogts, all of them - they took up a whole shelf in the small shop - going for £2 each, which seems a lot to me, but they must know what they’re doing. I bought Pawns Of Null-A, and I am going to read it, however awful it looks. I’ll read it on the plane to Berlin, just to keep Frances on her toes.