In the Durrells’ Footsteps

One of the books set for study for my English Literature O Level* was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. At that time—around 1979-80—I must confess to not having heard of the book, its author or his brother Larry, also a writer. Back then, I was reading horror novels by James Herbert and Stephen King, or fantasy by David Gemmell and Tolkien.

As a young teenager I had read and fallen in love with Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee. There was something about Lee’s writing and his reminiscences about life in rural Gloucestershire in the period after the Great War that called to me.


Cider With Rosie

My Family had the same effect. I was instantly captivated by Durrell’s writing—it’s been many years since I last read the book, but I can still recall the wonderfully evocative way he described the cold from which he was suffering (and which partly prompted his mother to uproot the family and transport them almost two thousand miles to Greece). He wrote that the British summer had brought cattarh, ‘pouring it into my skull like cement’.

In case you haven’t read it (or seen one of the TV adaptations), the book and its two sequels are about the family’s sojourn to Corfu in 1935 when Gerry (Gerald) was aged ten. A keen student of natural history at even such a young age, he recounts his many and varied adventures with the Greek wildlife. But the real joy, for me, lies in the anecdotes about his family and the locals they encounter during their four-year stay on the island before war forces them back to Britain. There are also the eccentric guests Gerry’s eldest brother, Larry, invites to stay with them, usually at short to no notice, much to his long-suffering mother’s despair.


My Family and Other Animals

Larry (Lawrence) became an accomplished novelist, best known for The Alexandria Quartet. He provides the impetus for most of the funniest escapades, although Gerry’s bullish older brother Leslie and his flighty sister Margo, as well as their mother, have their share of comic moments.

As soon as we started reading the book in class, I was hooked and there was no way I could wait to read the book at the pace set by our English teacher. I continued reading it at home that evening and had finished it long before the deadline set by the teacher. Re-reading the book two or three times in preparation for the exam was no hardship.

That’s a long-winded way to explain why the island of Corfu has held a fascination for me since my mid-teens. Over the years, I have visited the island four or five times and have just come back from a fortnight in Glyfada on its west coast. The landscape, despite the paucity of summer rain, is surprisingly verdant, the sea is molten aquamarine and wonderfully cooling in the heat of the day, the sunsets are spectacular, and the locals are amongst the friendliest people I have ever encountered.

Although this holiday was intended as a total chill-out, recharge-the-batteries laze around the beach and pool—and was—we did take a couple of trips into the baking heat of the island’s capital, Corfu Town. They have a cricket pitch near the castle and harbour; on a previous trip, I’ve drunk a beer and watched a match taking place. Not far away, is a park dedicated to Lawrence and Gerald Durrell.

In My Family, the Durrells live in three villas during their stay on the island: apparently, two of the three still stand and they’re not far away from Corfu Town. Next time I visit Corfu (there will definitely be a next time), I want to find a trip that takes tourists to view the villas. Sure, they and the surroundings in which they stand probably bear little resemblance to the 1930s versions, but it’s still something I’d love to do. Short of time travel, I can’t imagine a better way of bringing one of my favourite books to life.

( * for those who don’t know, O Levels are the qualifications that teenagers used to sit in the UK at around the age of sixteen. They’ve since been supplanted by GCSEs.)

Living the Dream

I try to avoid talking about purely personal stuff because, unless you happen to know me in real life, I doubt you’d be particularly interested. Well, this is one of those personal posts so feel free to skip it—I won’t take offence.

I can’t place hand on heart and say I’ve wanted to be a writer all of my life. Although I’ve devoured fiction since I first learned to read, and English was comfortably my best subject at school, the notion of becoming a fiction writer didn’t materialise until my mid to late twenties. Then, no sooner had I sat down and started to write the first novel than the urge to become a full-time writer set in and has never left me.

Half of my life, then.

In Taking the Plunge, I wrote about what led to cutting my hours by half in my regular job. That happened in July 2017, after approaching my employers the previous August to request going part-time.

A lot can happen in a year. In my case, for reasons mentioned in that post, my writing output and sales dwindled to virtually nothing. Nevertheless, I was confident I could turn it around once a couple of things had fallen into place.

Now, two years on from going part-time, those things, and more, are in place. The biggies are regaining complete control over my books from the small press publisher, learning how to produce my own covers and paperbacks, designing my own website, and grasping enough about marketing to know how to give my books some sort of visibility. (My struggles with marketing are well documented in the Marketing for Muppets posts.) Apart from using an outside narrator for audio (I did consider narrating myself, but I’m dreadful at accents) and utilising the services of Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, etc to make them available to purchase, I don’t rely on anyone else for any aspect of producing my books.

In short, I have become totally self-sufficient. And I love it.

There is only one fly in my idyllic ointment: for two or three days each week, I have to toddle off to sit in an office and work for someone else. That’s half of each week taken up with doing something I don’t want to do that takes me away from what I love doing.

Despite my writing income having increased steadily over the past year, my wife—the sensible half of our marriage when it comes to financial matters—would not agree to my leaving the regular job because, as she rightly pointed out, book sales could fall away at any time.

I was growing desperate for a way to escape the regular job. Then, in the office a month or two back, a couple of colleagues happened to be discussing pensions, when one of them mentioned we can access our work pension at the age of fifty-five. Guess what age I’m turning in November? It was like a flashbulb going off in my head. My Eureka! moment.

The possibility of taking early retirement hadn’t been on my radar—I feel too young to even think about retiring. I looked into it. Retiring at fifty-five means a fairly drastic reduction in pension entitlement. It’s little more than peanuts, really, but here’s the crucial point: it’s guaranteed peanuts.

Saying my wife was happy about me retiring might be stretching it a little, but she was agreeable, if only, I suspect, to stop me banging on about becoming a full-time writer.

And that’s what I’m going to be. Last week I handed in my notice in my regular job. I’ll be officially leaving in early November. Since I work part-time and have accrued holidays, I only have twenty-two working days remaining. Not that I’m counting…

It’s not going to be retirement in the generally accepted sense. I won’t be taking up golf or gardening. I’ll be working twice as hard at writing, and all that goes with it, as I do now. I intend working my butt off for the next five years and then taking a breath to see where I’m at.

For the first time in my life, I won’t be dancing to anyone else’s tune. There are still almost three months to go so I’m trying to keep a lid on the excitement, but I haven’t looked forward to a birthday as much since my eighteenth.

How to find your way around

I’ve been blogging for a while now and the number of posts has grown. Time to pin a short post here to advise anyone unfamiliar with WordPress sites how to navigate around the blog. Let’s say you’re a writer interested in posts about marketing or grammar, you probably don’t want to be scrolling down oodles of posts you’re not interested in. There’s a search function and previous posts are archived according to month posted, but the simplest way is to use the Categories menu. It’s on the right—you might need to scroll down a little way to find it. Simply click on the category you’re interested in and you’ll be presented with the posts relevant to that subject-matter. The system’s not perfect—there are some posts that come under more than one category—but it’s the easiest method to find your way around.

Oh, and if you want to leave a comment or read existing comments, you have to be on the post’s page (by clicking its title), rather than on a page containing more than one post.

A Very Merry Christmas

It’s that time of year when we wish peace and goodwill to others. When our cups of joy overflow, often in direct proportion to the flow of alcohol. When we give each other presents and spend precious time with our loved ones. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we treated each other as well throughout the year as we do in late December?

Despite the rampant commercialism and the pressures of shopping (I’m a bloke; I hate shopping), it’s my favourite time of year. Imagine winter without Christmas. What a bleak few months they would be.

It’s dreary here in Wales as I write this. The sky has been grey and drizzly for days. The ground is permanently wet—whenever we step in from outside, we bring in mud. Yet we don’t allow it to dampen our festive spirits. My daughters—both now in their twenties—and my wife still grow excited as the big day draws near. So do I. In fact, I’m probably the biggest kid of us all.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish you a peaceful and happy time. As we say in Wales, Iechyd da!—Good health!

The 4th Annual Sam Kates Office Party

St Mary Street decorations

Each December I take those of my nearest and dearest who have helped me throughout the year to Cardiff and treat them to a steak dinner, with perchance a bottle of wine and a cocktail or two. The day tends to involve a fair amount of beer and a visit to Winter Wonderland.

This year the guests were my brother (for the invaluable assistance he provides in IT-related matters), my elder daughter (for being my design consultant and managing my Instagram account), and my wife (for putting up with me). If I can get my younger daughter involved in some capacity or other, next year’s party might be a full family affair.

Yours truly and bruv.
In reverse order, Mrs Kates and Miss Kates the Elder.

My wife, daughter and I travelled up to Cardiff to meet my brother in Waterstones. A book shop makes a great place to meet up because, well, books. Then it was off to find a relatively quiet pub, not so easy in the centre of Cardiff on a Friday in December. We were lucky, after only a few false starts managing to find a pub with available seats, no queues at the bar and no loud music blasting. A few relaxed beers later and we made our way to this year’s venue, Steak of the Art. Suffice it to say, good steaks, wine and a few cocktails were dispatched with practised ease. Say what you like about my family, but we’re dab hands at packing away food and drink.

Steak of the Art.

My younger daughter and her boyfriend were in town Christmas shopping so we met up with them after we’d left the restaurant. Sadly, the gusting wind and frequent prolonged showers meant we had to skip Winter Wonderland this year. Never mind—there’s always beer.

Miss Kates the Younger and boyfriend join the gang. Soon there would be singing – well, six is plenty for a choir.

And so we indulged; perhaps it would be more accurate to say over-indulged, but fun was had by all and I felt I had gone a little way towards repaying the help they have given me throughout the year. Thanks, guys—luvs ya!

Yes, the beer is flowing…
St Mary Street again.
And again.

Here are some photos from previous year’s parties that were posted on my old site.

From 2017

Probably St Mary Street, yet again.
Winter Wonderland
It was a big wheel…
Miss Kates the Elder with the Millennium Stadium in background.
One of those blurs is yours truly and bruv.
The beer flowed last year, too.

From 2016

Cardiff Castle and the tree someone in the Council ordered in feet instead of metres – mustn’t snigger.
The deer that dwarfed the tree.
Winter Wonderland again.
As you can see, there was a fair amount of beer involved on this occasion, too.

From the inaugural office party in 2015

And, yep, you guessed it, bloody St Mary Street again.
Didn’t take many photos that first year, but I did snap these rather snazzy urinals.

A Baltic Odyssey

According to our local guide, Alexander Pushkin is to the Russian people what William Shakespeare is to us Brits. Although born in Moscow, he has strong associations with St Petersburg, which happened to be one of the ports of call on our cruise around the Baltic Sea.

We enjoy cruising and usually choose the Mediterranean for the sunshine. Occasionally, though, we opt to go north and have cruised to the Norwegian fjords and the Arctic Circle. This Baltic trip attracted us for the variety of ports in six countries we’d never before visited.

This isn’t going to be a lengthy post; it’s more an excuse to say a little bit about the cruise and show a few photos. But, to obey my self-imposed rules about what I post on this site, I have to include a link, no matter how tenuous, to reading or writing. Thus, Pushkin. I regret to admit that I haven’t read anything by him and, honestly, will probably never do, though at least he is now on my reading radar.

Anyway, the ports. My favourite? Based on what we did there and the sheer beauty of the place, it has to be Tallinn in Estonia. Here’s a view of the city—the black-domed church above is also in Tallinn.

Copenhagen is probably a close second. Once home, of course, to Hans Christian Andersen (another writing link; go, me), whose association is commemorated, amongst other things, by the statue of the Little Mermaid.

Riga (Latvia) is also beautiful; Skagen (Denmark) is chocolate-box quaint; Helsinki (Finland) gave the impression of being unfinished, there was so much construction work going on, though is still lovely; Kiel (Germany) is interesting, though a little strange (they have a park called Hiroshima Park, which contains a statue of Bismark). The port that made the deepest impression, for not necessarily all the right reasons, was St Petersburg, the city of many names.

Our first sight of Russia was underwhelming, sinister almost: row upon row of ugly concrete apartment blocks poking from the mist. We passed many more on our coach ride into the city centre, a lot of them in a state of disrepair. It was grim, a dystopia, Orwell’s vision of the future brought to life.

Then the sun burned away the fog and revealed a city of stunning contrasts. Fairytale churches and cathedrals; glistening gold-domed towers and spires; forbidding, official-looking buildings; imposing monuments. The square behind the Winter Palace, said our guide, is larger than Red Square in Moscow.

If you ever visit St Petersburg, take a tour around the Hermitage Museum. Formerly a palace complex of the Tsars, it has been preserved in much the same state as it was in 1917 when the city was known as Petrograd, the Romanovs held power (until the abdication of Nicholas II in February) and the October Revolution was signalled by a blank shot from the battle cruiser Aurora (coincidentally, the same name as the ship in which we had cruised into St Petersburg). Here are snaps of them both.

Apparently, if you were to spend 30 seconds viewing every single exhibit the museum holds, it would take you around eleven years to see them all.

We spent a few hours there and barely scratched the surface.

It was a jaw-dropping tour, marvelling at the lavish opulence—I’ve never seen so many grand chandeliers and ornately decorated ceilings, so many paintings outside of a specialist gallery by masters like Da Vinci and Rembrandt, more gold (I imagine) than even the Vatican—while privately thinking it was little wonder there was so much discontent among the masses to have such riches in the midst of what must have been at that time severe deprivation.

St Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) is also famous for the failed siege by Germany in World War II. This is the hotel where Hitler planned to host a dinner to celebrate his conquest. He apparently even went as far as having invitations printed with only the date left blank.

We only spent hours at a stretch in these ports, enough to gain a flavour. But, without exception, the places we visited were captivating. If you’re ever wondering whether a trip to the Baltics is worthwhile, I’d say, resoundingly, yes.

To finish, a snap of me supping a stein of locally brewed beer in Kiel. These things have to be done. Cheers!

 

Taking the Plunge

[First posted 21st July 2017]

I’ve long harboured a dream to make a living from writing fiction. That dream was placed on hold for a good number of years while I changed career, but was dusted down five years ago when I came to realise the possibilities made available by the revolution in e-publishing. No more having to submit sample manuscripts and stamped-addressed-envelopes (remember those?) to London agents. No more being in limbo waiting for the latest rejection. No more wondering whether the despondency was worth it.

I rediscovered my urge to write. It had never really gone away, but had lain dormant and now awoke with a vengeance. I began writing in evenings, at weekends, during leave from work. I completed a trilogy of apocalyptic science fiction novels, which sold well enough that I could consider going part-time in my regular job. I dabbled in marketing, not especially successfully, but sufficiently that sales continued to tick over.

Then things went a little pear-shaped when life—or, more accurately, death—intervened. My uncle died in June last year, having appointed me to be the executor of his will. I used to do such work for a living so it was a smart move on his part as it would save the family many thousands of pounds in legal fees. I didn’t mind in the slightest, but it was a fairly complex estate with a house to be sold and tax to be paid so involved a lot of time-consuming work, which I’ve had to fit in to the spaces previously occupied by writing and marketing.

Something had to give. Much of my writing time disappeared along with all the time I used to spend marketing. My book sales have suffered, especially in the States. But I’ve now almost completed administration of the estate. Most of the time-heavy work has been done and I’ll be ready to finalise everything as soon as I receive final confirmation of the estate’s tax affairs.

At last, I can return to writing and this week I’ve cut the hours in my regular job by half. In truth, it’s more of a risk now than it would have been twelve months ago, but if I don’t do this now, I may never.

Yesterday was my first ‘writing day’ and the first time I’ve been able to write in a block of four hours without feeling guilty about the jobs around the house or family stuff I should have been doing instead. Afternoons of writing days are to be devoted to things like editing, research, business administration and, of course, marketing. Perhaps I will at last get to learn a little about how to effectively promote my books, which to me means making readers aware of them without feeling I’m shoving them in their faces.

Here’s a snapshot of what is now my office for two or three days of each week. At least until I can write full-time. Or, God forbid, until I have to go back to my regular employer, cap in hand, and beg for my full-time hours back. Shudder…

[Update, July 2018: I finalised my uncle’s estate a couple of months later. And apart from a few more books lying about, that writing space hasn’t changed much.

Since becoming a part-time writer a year ago, my output hasn’t been as great as I’d anticipated. It went well at first – I finished the novel I was working on, Jack’s Tale, wrote a collection of dark, Christmas-themed short stories in time for a late October release, began and finished the final novel in The Elevator trilogy, The Lord of the Dance. I began a new novel, a dark tale set in post-war Britain that hasn’t yet made up its mind if it’s going to be horror or science fiction. In addition, I posted regularly to my blog.

However, in March came a couple of events that somewhat derailed progress. My wife underwent a double knee replacement and I parted company with my publishers. For a while, I found myself playing the part (willingly, I should add) of carer for a temporarily disabled spouse – she’s now almost fully recovered and far more mobile than she was before the op. More significantly, I found that I needed to revise and revamp my entire catalogue – more of that in later posts.

The upshot was that my writing and marketing time once more disappeared, along with my website which had gone poof! in February. In effect, I’m around five months behind where I’d planned to be. But now that my catalogue has been revised and self-published, and my website’s back, I can turn once more to the horror/sci-fi novel and hopefully publish it before Christmas.]

Normal Service is Resumed

Long story short: I have been unable to post to my website, or indeed access it, since late February 2018 due to issues caused by an update followed immediately by issues caused by my hosting company.

At around the same time, I parted company with my publishers and found myself up to my eyes in learning how to produce my own paperbacks. Fair to say, I doubt I’d have found the time to post regularly even had the site been working.

But that’s all behind me now. (See the forthcoming posts about publishing paperbacks for more details, if that sort of thing interests you.) I have a new website host and, fingers crossed, everything seems to be back to normal.

I have, however, had to rebuild this site from scratch. That’s why there are no blog posts. Fortunately, I have copies of most of the posts that appeared on my old site and so can begin to repost them, with dates they originally appeared where relevant.

Posts will be loosely categorised according to their main theme(s) – writing, reading, publishing, marketing, etc. If you’re only interested in, say, posts about reading, you should be able to click on the reading category and only find the posts categorised thus. At least, I think that’s how it will work. We shall see…