More On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

Another blogger who enjoyed The Cleansing asked if she could interview me for her blog. I was only too happy to oblige. The interview appeared in February 2014.

Congratulations for The Cleansing—I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What attracted you to writing an apocalyptic tale?

Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.

I’ve held a fascination for end of world tales since I was a boy. Books, films, computer games, some of the most memorable have been based in apocalyptic worlds. Difficult to pin down quite what the attraction is. I guess it has something to do with it being this world but not as we know it. All bets are off. No laws, no society, no civilisation, no checks or balance. What morality remains has to battle to make itself felt amidst the anarchy and struggle to survive. It’s man reduced to his basest, most bestial form.

The end of world scenario provides the writer with a blank page that he or she can fill in a wide variety of ways. I think that’s the main attraction of the genre to a writer. The possibilities are endless.

I particularly enjoyed how The Cleansing was set in various different countries. How else did you try to make the novel stand out from other apocalyptic fiction?

It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it different from other apocalytpic fiction I’ve read. Of course, I was well aware of its similarities to other stories. If I’d thought, however, that I was merely rehashing tales that had been done before without bringing anything new to the party, I wouldn’t have bothered sending it to my publisher. I still would have written it as it’s the only way to dislodge a story once it’s taken up home in the rattling space within my head. And The Cleansing had well and truly settled in for the duration. It was either write it or be stuck with a nagging lodger for the rest of my life.

As to how it’s different from other tales, I’ve not read a book that tells of humankind being wiped out deliberately to make way for new inhabitants. If such a book does exist, I haven’t read it but then I’ve only read a small fraction of the end of world tales that have ever been written. So it was a new take on the genre to me. I hope it will be to some readers, too.

The novel is exciting and fun to read, while also being tragic and upsetting in places. Is it important to move your readers as well as entertain them?

Vitally important. As a reader, I better remember books that have moved me than those that have merely entertained me. As a writer, I want readers to feel some sort of emotional reaction to my work, though I’d settle for them being merely entertained over feeling indifferent. I don’t deliberately set out to provoke particular emotional responses. I think that they are a natural by-product if a story is worth telling and is told well.

The Cleansing is part of a trilogy. Do you know how the final book will end or is it still evolving?

I can see in my mind’s eye the climactic scene that occurs at or near the end of the third book, but I don’t yet know how the characters will reach that point. They may take off at tangents that will result in a different ending – characters can be untrustworthy like that – or unforeseen events could occur that push the action in a new direction. That’s part of the fun of writing without an outline; it’s also a little scary.

Do you find the structure of trilogies restrictive? Why do you think they are so popular?

This is the first series I’ve written, though I didn’t set out to write one. It quickly became obvious when I was writing The Cleansing that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. I didn’t want to write something the size of a brick because I felt that nobody would take a chance on buying a book that size by a virtual unknown. So a trilogy seemed the natural solution.

As for being restrictive, I’m actually finding it to be quite the opposite. Instead of trying to condense the plot into one novel, I have the freedom to explore the world more fully. If characters choose to deviate, that’s fine. There’s time and room for them to get it out of their system before finding their way back to the main action.

I’m not so sure that trilogies are universally popular among readers, at least not when the subsequent books have yet to be published. As a keen reader myself, I understand why. If the first book in a trilogy is captivating, the reader naturally wants to read more immediately. By the time the sequel comes out, readers will have moved on and some will have lost their sense of wonder at the first book. It may not be recaptured on reading the sequel.

However, from a writer’s point of view trilogies are attractive. For a start, writing the first book is nowhere near as daunting as writing a book three times longer. Moreover, the writer will have some idea how well the first book is being received while he pens the sequel. He will have the benefit of reader feedback that may shape the direction the sequels take. He will have the opportunity of answering questions posed by readers of the first book as he develops the sequels. Those questions may even prompt ideas that will enrich the sequels in ways the writer might not otherwise have envisaged.

When will the sequel be published and does it yet have a title?

I can’t tell you when the second novel will be published for a very good reason: I haven’t finished writing it yet. When it has been finished and edited, it will then be up to my publisher, Smithcraft Press, whether to accept it for publication and, if so, where it will fit into its schedule. I can tell you that the full title will be Earth Haven Book 2: The Beacon.

I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic novels. What are your favourites?

So am I, though I’m an avid reader of many genres so haven’t read as many apocalyptic novels as I’d have liked. Too many books, not enough time. Of those I have read, the three that instantly spring to mind that I’d have to name as my favourites are, in no particular order:

The Stand by Stephen King. Many apocalyptic tales begin after – sometimes a long time after – the apocalyptic event took place. What I love about The Stand is that the novel opens just before the event begins so we watch it unfold. I also liked the fact that it was not a traumatic event such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war so that our infrastructures remained intact. (The Cleansing is very similar in these aspects.) Certain elements of the tale didn’t appeal to me so much and I would have liked to have seen a little of what was happening outside the United States, but as a whole the book is a fantastic read.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the book has a haunting lyricism and sense of mysticism that stayed with me long after I finished it. Just writing this is making me want to read it again.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Bleak, depressing, pessimistic… I found it utterly compelling. This seems to be a Marmite book, but I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It’s not often I find a book to be truly unputdownable, but this one was. Simply superb.

What was your favourite read of 2013?

My reading highlights included catching up on some classics such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury; my first, but not last, venture into the world of John Le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl; and the moving Joyland by Stephen King. But my absolute favourite read of the year, though I did not anticipate it being so, was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction but picked this up on a whim as a holiday read. Boy, am I glad that I did! The structure is unusual: a series of interviews with key players or witnesses in the zombie war that has recently ended. The advantage of the format is that we get to see the war unfold through many different points of view. Thoughtful, intelligent, it dragged me in and kept me totally engrossed to the end. Wonderful.

Thank you so much, Sam! Roll on Book 2!

No, thank you! Giving up space on your blog for my ramblings is greatly appreciated.

Weird Words 6

The sixth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

innovative

Thanks to an old school friend, Simon Evans, for this suggestion. Simon says he can’t pronounce this word without a long ‘o’. So, something like ‘in-ohh-vative’, with presumably the ‘a’ in ‘-ative’ being short, as in ‘superlative’.

This could be a case of the Avid Reader’s Curse.

If Simon has mainly seen the word written down and seldom heard it spoken, it’s understandable that he might pronounce it incorrectly. I still come across words that trip me up when I try to pronounce them because I usually only encounter them in written form. A recent one was ‘lieutenant’—I had to remind myself that the correct British pronunciation is ‘leff-tenant’ and not ‘lew-tenant’ as our American friends say.

But back to innovative. It means, of course, featuring or introducing new ideas, methods or devices. And it is properly pronouced with a short ‘o’: ‘inno-vative’ where the ‘a’ in ‘-ative’ is longer, as in ‘native’.

petrichor

We’ve all smelled it, that earthy (and, to me, metallic) odour which rises from the pavement when it rains for the first time after a dry spell. It’s a distinctive smell that really deserves its own word. And wouldn’t you know…

It’s only fairly recently that I became aware that one existed, though it seems to have only gained official recognition more recently still.

See this BBC article from 2018 about the word. And here’s another article from around the same time from Merriam-Webster, which I’m including because it’s interesting. Yes, it is. When the article was written, the American dictionary compilers were watching ‘petrichor’ with a view to including it in their dictionary, but it did not then qualify. As the addendum notes, the word was accepted into the dictionary in April 2019.

There you have it. Next time you’re out and it rains for the first time in a while, sniff deeply and say to a passing stranger, “Don’t you just love the smell of petrichor?”

skedaddle

Thanks to fellow writer Mike Van Horn for this suggestion.

What a splendid word this is. It’s another of those words which sounds a lot like its meaning:
—to leave immediately, especially in the sense of to flee in a panic.

When I noticed the snake slithering towards me, I skedaddled in the opposite direction.

The folk at Merriam-Webster included the word in a list of ten common words with military origins. If you find words and their origins interesting, it’s well worth a read: civilianized military jargon.

 

That’s all for Part 6. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

Reviewing: An Unknown Writer’s Perspective

[Browsing through the murky depths of my hard drive the other day, I came across a handful of articles and interviews—some from quite a few years back—most of which were published on blogs or websites of fellow writers. So that I have everything I’ve had published collected in one place, I’ll reproduce them on my blog from time to time, with a brief note of when they were written and, where I can remember, why. There is often overlap between interviews and articles, and so inevitably the later pieces will repeat, sometimes verbatim, some of the earlier material.

Let’s kick off with this article, written in 2002 and first published in the long-defunct Cambrensis magazine*. To the fifty-six-year-old me, this piece displays a fairly high level of naivety on the part of thirty-eight-year-old me—it is evident that the possibility of a self-publishing revolution, which was around five years away when I wrote this, was not on my radar. Hardly surprising, given that I didn’t notice the revolution until around five years after it had started.

On with the article…]

 

How should an unknown writer approach the preparation of a review of another writer’s work? With extreme caution, I would suggest.

To state the obvious, though it’s surprising how often it seems to be overlooked, a review is a showcase of your own writing talent. Don’t make it dull and uninspiring, even if the book you’re reviewing is. Use it to demonstrate that you, too, are a writer, but without losing sight of the work under consideration. It’s a question of balance: providing a fair appraisal of the book, while revealing a glimpse of your own writing ability.

Books are like any other entertainment medium or artform – films, music, comics, photographs, paintings, theatre, etc. Beauty is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Take the film The Blair Witch Project, a perfect example. People who have seen it seem to fall within two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I come within the former category. I thought the film was brilliantly conceived and executed, one of the scariest films made, yet without showing a single supernatural image or gory scene. That’s probably why many people felt it a waste of time.

The point, of course, is that art is completely subjective. This can best be expressed in relation to books by mutilating a well-known proverb: one man’s ripping yarn is another man’s sleep-inducer. And that’s a sentiment that we should always keep in mind when reviewing another’s work.

The best sort of reviewer is he (or she) who tells us enough about a book to give us a flavour – no more – of its plot and characters, tells us why he likes or dislikes it, then, regardless of personal taste, encourages us to go and read it. Such a reviewer appreciates that simply because he hated a book it doesn’t mean that we will, and recognises that his role is not to read a book in our place, but to draw our attention to it so that we may read it and judge for ourselves.

That, I believe, is the ideal we should all, as writers, particularly of the unknown variety, aim for when reviewing. The key word is objectivity. Let’s not dismiss other people’s work out of hand. We know, or can give a shrewd estimate of, the time and effort that goes into writing a book. Who are we to be contemptuous of the result of those labours? Moreover, do we want to run the risk of the first reviewer of our debut novel or collection being the same author whose work we so callously dismissed? Nor should we talk up good writing so much that it can never meet a reader’s inflated expectations. Remember: we have all had work that we feel is good summarily rejected, showing that we are not the best judges of our own work. Why should we be of others’?

And there’s a sound practical reason why a reviewer of, say, a novel, who is himself an aspiring novelist, should encourage people to read the book for themselves, even if he considers it the worst piece of writing he’s ever encountered. The more books people buy, the more money publishers make and the more should be available to filter downwards, making the publishers more willing to take risks on unknown writers. That’s you and me.

But wait, you’re saying. I have to review a novel that’s badly written, has a hackneyed plot, stereotypical characters and clichéd conflicts. It has no redeeming features and I can’t conceive of it being anyone’s ripping yarn. How can I encourage anybody to read such drivel without being completely dishonest?

Well, try to remember that somebody thought the book had something going for it – they’ve published it, haven’t they? Assuming the author isn’t the daughter of the publisher’s managing director, the book must have some good points. Take another look. Then another. If you still can’t find anything positive to say, then I suppose you’ll have to let rip.

Just don’t forget that in doing so you may be harming more than the reviewed author’s prospects.

 

*if you were a writer of short fiction or book reviews in South Wales at the turn of the Millennium, you will almost certainly have heard of Cambrensis

Weird Words 5

The fifth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Raccoon

Thanks to Vijaya for suggesting this word—it’s one of her favourites.

Raccoon… hmm, makes me think of Guardians of the Galaxy and, unlike Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, a non-irritating CGI anthropormorphic animal named Rocket.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a raccoon is a small nocturnal carnivore native to North America. According to Merriam-Webster, the word derives from the native American language Virginia Algonquian, also known as Powhatan. According to Wikipedia, that language became extinct around the 1790s when its speakers were forced to switch to English.

That makes me feel sad.

Noisome

Meaning highly obnoxious or objectionable; often used to describe a disgusting smell.

It’s one of those words ripe for being misused by the careless writer who chucks it into a sentence without double-checking its meaning.

The noisome explosions surrounded me while I cowered in the foxhole.

Nope. Unless, perhaps, you’re describing the rapid expulsion of air from someone’s backside, or a hand grenade lobbed into a cesspit, explosions are rarely likely to be noisome.

Kerfuffle

Another of those words I love because they sound so much like their meaning. Does a disturbance or commotion sound like a kerfuffle to you? Of course it does.

It apparently comes from a combination of ancient Scots and Gaelic. Probably. It typically refers to a commotion caused by an argument, though can apply to most disturbances.

Since I’m claiming it to be one of my favourite words, I checked to see whether I’d used it in any of my published fiction. Lo and behold, it appears in my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls.

Although the rear wall blocked out the Dead Lights at ground level, they were bright enough to light up the garden like a flare and I was vaguely aware of a kerfuffle coming from the disturbed animals and poultry as I sprinted past them.

See—told you I loved it.

 

That’s all for Part 5. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

In Praise of Paper

A light-hearted post today—in these days of gloom and uncertainty, I’m increasingly drawn to writing blog posts tending towards frothiness. Cappuccino rather than espresso.

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t about bashing e-readers. Indeed, I have an e-reader. It’s a Kindle Paperwhite and I love it to bits. It holds umpteen books, it’s lightweight and easy to hold when I’m horizontal, and, best of all, it is backlit so I can read in the early hours without disturbing the other half.

So what is this post about? Well, a little while ago I was buying something on Amazon for £16. Postage and packing would cost £4-odd, but I could get free p & p if I bought something else to bring the total past £20. It was a bit of a no-brainer to look for something around the £4 mark and, in effect, get the second item free.

If you, too, are an avid reader, you’ll know to which department I headed in search of a £4 item. I found something straight away—a small Penguin paperback of essays by George Orwell.

Here’s a pic of the book next to my Kindle. And, yes, that’s one of my books on the e-reader screen. Why miss an opportunity for a little self-plugging, eh? Goodness knows, I’m rubbish at doing that most of the time.

The caption sums up my feelings towards e-books and their more traditional counterparts. Some people say they will never use an e-reader; others that they will only use an e-reader and never return to paper books. Me, I enjoy both. Much as I love my Kindle, it will never completely replace traditional books for me.

I tend to alternate between reading a book on my Kindle and reading a paperback, but of late I’ve been reading more of the former. No particular reason other than the books I’ve been wanting to read next happen to be on my Kindle.

So when the Orwell book arrived from Amazon, it had been a few weeks since I’d last handled a paperback. And a great deal longer since I’d held a brand new one.

I imagine most book lovers will recognise how I react to holding a new book for the first time:

– gaze at it for long moments, slowly absorbing the cover design

– run my fingers over the cover; if, as is the case with the Orwell book, the cover is embossed, my fingers will linger as I relish the ridges and furrows, silky to the touch

– turn the book over and absorb the back cover and description

– (this, and the next, are the ones that people who have little time for books don’t get) raise the book to my nose and inhale deeply

–  riffle the pages, stop at random and thrust my nose between the pages to inhale once more

There is nothing quite like the pleasure to be derived from holding a brand new book. (Indeed, from holding old, well-read books, too, though the sensations involved there are more to do with an appreciation of age and mustiness, and being in the presence of something much-treasured.)

While the aesthetic pleasure in e-books lies almost entirely in the reading device itself—which, of course, looks the same no matter what you’re reading on it—paper books differ in their dimensions, type and size of font, cover design, and more. An e-reader strips back a book to make it all about its contents; I’m unlikely to ever derive pleasure purely from the look of an e-book. By contrast, I can greatly enjoy simply looking at and holding a paper book, never mind reading its contents.

Take the Orwell book. It’s small in height and width and thickness, like a well-padded pamphlet, and weighs very little, a pleasant surprise when you’re accustomed to holding weightier tomes. I’ve already mentioned the silky feel of the embossed cover—it really is something I delight in touching. I love the classic Penguin design of the cover: simplistic and iconic. And it has that new-book scent that always reminds me of the smell given off by roads and pavements when it rains for the first time in a while. The smells aren’t the same, as such, but similar for their distinctiveness.

I’d like to say that the scent of a book is of crisp paper and ink, but they’re more likely to have been laser-printed these days. Still, there’s something special about thrusting your hooter between the pages of a new book and inhaling. I’m not going over the top and claiming this to be akin to a religious experience, but it nevertheless stirs something spiritual in me.

“Guru Sam, tell us the secret of life.”
“Certainly, my acolytes. Go forth and buy a new book. Open it and breathe in through your nose. Slowly. Deeply. Therein lies true enlightenment.”

Yeah, I agree; that’s enough wittering for one post. Whatever your preferred medium, happy smell— er, reading!

Weird Words 4

The fourth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Definitely

One of those words that is so frequently misspelt that I have to pause to think when writing it. I know Facebook and Twitter are hardly the measure of society’s literacy standards, but it’s rare indeed to encounter it spelt correctly on social media. How often have you seen it written as ‘definately’? Or, my favourite and the result, no doubt, of that curse of modern technology, the autocorrect function:

‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh, yes, defiantly.’

I often find myself reading the post as if the writer meant what they wrote—there’s something almost noble about being defiant in the face of the latest photograph of someone’s dinner.

A good way to remember how to spell it correctly (at least, the way I remember) is to pronounce it in your head as ‘dee-fie-night-lee’, or to remember that it’s the opposite of ‘infinitely’. Best—defiantly best—not to rely on autocorrect.

Serendipity

One of my favourite words in the entire English language. I didn’t even know it existed until one day I happened across it by happy accident.*

A former work colleague—I hope she’ll forgive me if she ever reads this—came across the word for the first time when taking down a customer’s address over the telephone. The customer had called his house ‘Serendipity’. My colleague wrote the address as ‘seven dippety sendipity’. For years afterwards, I kept the yellow Post-it note on which she’d written the address and brought it out for a giggle whenever I needed cheering up.

Collywobbles

If you’ve read my previous posts in this series, you’ll know I love words that sound like their definition. Meaning stomach pain or queasiness usually brought on by intense anxiety or nervousness, ‘collywobbles’ is another beautifully descriptive word completely in harmony with its definition.

(At the risk of destroying the magic, Merriam-Webster says the word probably derives from a transformation of the New Latin term for the disease cholera, cholera morbus, to make it sound less sinister. Hmm, that’s one of those things I’d prefer, on the whole, not to know.)

 

That’s all for Part 4. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

*see what I did there?

 

Twinkies

Making the Mysterious Mundane

If the title and subtitle don’t already tell you, this week’s post is not profound. Indeed, you might say it’s light-hearted. Frivolous, even.

Nothing wrong with a bit of frivolity now and then. It can provide a small but welcome distraction from the deadly serious stuff that’s been pretty much the story of 2020 thus far. So here’s a bit of froth about Twinkies.

I’ve mentioned them before in a post about the differences between British and American English: What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

For those who don’t want to read the entire piece, this is what I said about Twinkies (‘SK’ being Stephen King):

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

For any non-Americans looking in who don’t know what they are, Twinkies are a cake, of sorts. A snack-sized, yellowish sponge filled with synthetic cream.

They feature in the film Zombieland, where Woody Harrelson’s character is constantly on the look-out for them. (Interesting aside: the Twinkie he consumes in the film is, apparently, not a real one but a vegan version mocked up for him. The real ones contain ingredients unsuitable for vegans; some would argue they contain ingredients unsuitable for humans.)

After first encountering them in a Stephen King novel in my early teens, I spent many years knowing that Twinkies exist, but without knowing what they are. As anyone with an active imagination will appreciate, we often picture the unknown as more exciting and exotic than the reality. I don’t now recall what I imagined a Twinkie to be, but it wasn’t a plump finger of highly processed, sugary sponge filled with fake cream. When later, much later, I learned the truth, it came as a bit of a let-down, but still my curiosity wasn’t fully assuaged. That would only happen if I one day ate a Twinkie.

I’ve since visited the States a few times, but on each occasion, there being too many other delights to sample (such as a corned beef sandwich in Katz’s deli in Lower East Side Manhattan—yum, yum), I completely forgot to hunt down a Twinkie. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally tried one for the first time.

During lockdown, one of my daughters decided to order a delivery of confectionary from a place that stocks products from the US. Yep, including Twinkies. She ordered a box of ten for her and her boyfriend; one was enough for me.

The most satisfying part of the experience was getting to set eyes on a Twinkie at long last, to hold one and peel off the cellophane wrapper. Actually consuming it? Not so much.

Hmm, how best to describe it? Well, it was edible. Too sweet, cloyingly so, for my palate. Did it leave me wanting more? Nope, I can’t say it did, though I guess I’d happily consume them during the Apocalypse.

So more than forty years after first hearing about them, after many moments spent idly wondering what they are, I’ve eaten a Twinkie. Despite it not being an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat, I’m glad to have done it. A small part of my teenage curiosity has been satisfied.

Now to find out what this sex thing is all about…

Weird Words 3

The third in a series of posts taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Minuscule

A film with this title recently premiered on Sky Movies—perhaps I ought to get out more (tricky though that is in today’s world), but I was gratified to see it spelt correctly. Mind, it’s understandable why we so often see it written as ‘miniscule’. In its adjectival form, it means ‘very small; tiny’ and so people will, wrongly though not unreasonably, associate it with the prefix ‘mini’, and words such as ‘minimal’ and ‘miniature’. Merriam-Webster, while listing ‘minuscule’ as the only correct spelling, notes that some dictionaries accept ‘miniscule’ as a legitimate variant. A case of where enough people get something wrong, it ends up being right?

Jeopardy

One of those words I have to pause and think about before spelling it correctly. There was a time when I couldn’t spell it without looking it up. Then I realised that it takes the same form as ‘leopard’ and I’ve been able to spell it ever since, though I still have to pause and think about it for a moment.

Diphthong

Also known as a gliding vowel, which is a lovely description. It’s the vowel sound found in words like ‘oil’ and ‘loud’ (and, indeed, in ‘sound’ and ‘found’), where the pronunciation changes during the syllable. (Ironically, the word diphthong does not itself contain any diphthongs.) This is one of those words that you might come across occasionally in writing, especially if you are interested in the technicalities of the English language, but won’t often hear spoken, and so there is ample scope for The Avid Reader’s Curse to strike. In my head, I pronounce it ignoring the first ‘h’: dip-thong. Turns out that’s the American pronunciation and the British pronunciation is diff-thong. Who knew?

 

That’s all for Part 3. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

In Dublin’s Fair City

James Joyce, W. B. Yeats, G. B. Shaw, Iris Murdoch, Oscar Wilde, Maeve Binchy… The list of notable authors associated with Dublin is impressive.

I’ve made several visits to the city, mostly to watch Wales take on Ireland in the Six Nations and once on a cricket tour (yep, cricket). It’s always struck me as a city that revolves around its pubs. And some fine pubs there are, too.

So, literature, pubs and rugby—what better place to spend a long weekend with five old school friends in honour of us all turning fifty-five?

We chose the weekend of 8th February 2020 because that’s when Wales were playing Ireland in Dublin in this year’s Six Nations. (For those who don’t follow rugby, that’s the main annual rugby union championship in the northern hemisphere.) The downside is that to fly from our local airport, Cardiff, means paying outrageously high fares—the operators hike their prices for that weekend because they know how much we Welsh love our rugby and how many of us follow Wales when they play away.

Our solution was to fly from Cardiff with KLM to Amsterdam and spend a few hours in Schiphol airport, before catching a connecting flight to the Emerald Isle. Nobody (least of all me—the older I get, the more I dislike flying) relished the thought of catching two flights in one day and taking seven hours to reach somewhere a little more than an hour’s flight from Cardiff, but a saving of £300 each sealed the deal.

Flying out was fine. The few hours layover in Schiphol we spent in a pub in the huge terminal building. ‘Huge’ is not an exaggeration—it’s the size of a small town, as we were to have painfully brought home to us during the journey home.

By teatime, we had linked up with the final member of our party (who had flown to Dublin from Heathrow), taken photos of the Welsh rugby team (who’d walked past us in Dublin airport), and found our way to our hotel in the city centre, just off O’Connell Street. By six, we were partaking of the weekend’s first pint of Guinness.

 

We arrived in Dublin on the Thursday. The match would occupy Saturday and we were returning home on Sunday. That left Friday to be filled. Since we are fifty-five, not twenty-five, we were keen to avoid a daytime activity that involved excessive amounts of alcohol. When one of our party, who works for the British Museum, suggested a cultural tour of the city, the rest of us were happy to tag along. On our way to the museums and galleries, we passed the house where Bram Stoker once lived. Dracula being one of the novels I loved as a teenager, I had to take some snaps. Here are a few combined.

I won’t bore you with details of the entire weekend—this is a writing blog, after all—but suffice it to say there was laughter and reminiscing and Guinness aplenty. Much as you’d expect when six lifelong friends get together again after a while apart. That’s the thing with good friends: it doesn’t really matter how long you spend apart; when you all meet up again, you merely pick up where you left off.

Here’s a snap I took of the boys outside St Stephen’s Green in the city centre. They look like an ageing rock band recreating the cover of one of their albums from back in the day.

There is one more writing-related mention. On Sunday morning, we braved Storm Ciara to stroll over to Temple Bar. One of the settings of my Earth Haven novel, The Beacon, is Dublin. One of the characters makes her temporary home in The Quays pub in post-apocalyptic Temple Bar. I chose it because I have some happy memories of the pub from previous trips.

Since we were right there, it would have been a shame not to pop in for a pint.

Travelling home wasn’t dull. Since we had to once more fly via Schiphol, having to take off and land twice in the teeth of Ciara was, um, interesting. Due to inevitable delays caused by the storm, we landed in Schiphol and were deposited by the airport bus in the concourse with barely fifteen minutes before the departure gate closed for our connecting flight to Cardiff. Not much of a problem, perhaps, except that it turned out we were at least a mile from where we needed to be. Have you ever seen a group of unfit fifty-five-year-olds with a few dodgy knees and hips between them, suffering the effects of a long weekend on Guinness, legging it down seemingly endless stretches of corridor? By the time we made it to the departure gate, panting and sweating, we must have looked as if we’d crossed a desert, not an airport.

We made it home only a couple of hours late. Since we’d been expecting to miss our connecting flight and have to spend the night on the floor in Schiphol, I’ve never been so relieved to land back in Cardiff.

Oh, and Wales lost the rugby in a disappointing performance. It only briefly took the shine off a fantastic weekend.

Enid Bloody Blyton

Five years ago, I was asked by an online magazine, Mass Movement, to pen a short article on the topic ‘What changed your life?’ My piece was featured alongside one by Larry Niven, the author of Ringworld and Lucifer’s Hammer, which I thought was well cool. Anyway, the other day I was having a Facebook conversation with some friends who are reading Enid Blyton’s books to their children. I mentioned that I’d written this article, but when I went to find it to give them a link, it seemed to have disappeared into the ether. Not being one to waste an article, I thought I’d reproduce it here, with a nod to Rob and Ange, and to all parents who start their children off along the joyous path of reading with a spot of Enid.

Enid Bloody Blyton

I have just turned fifty. Bald, with a paunch, and a fondness for beer and rugby. My reading tastes and writing tend towards the dark side. Give me a scary or fantastical film, a bottle of red wine and a bag of chocolates on a Friday night, I’m as happy as a pig in shit.

Darkness, science fiction, horror… why, then, am I penning a short article about that author of insufferably quaint children’s books from another era, Enid Blyton? Enid bloody Blyton? Well, those good folk from Mass Movement asked me for a piece about something that changed my life, and books play a huge part in my life. They mould it, inform it, direct it. The love of books led me, inevitably and irrevocably, to creating my own.

I’ve been writing fiction for around twenty years. Working full-time in a dreary, soul-sucking job allows me to return home of an evening with my brain still functioning and so able to write. Many spare hours are given over to tapping away at the computer keyboard, to the exclusion of most else (I have a very understanding family). Difficult to answer a question about something that changed my life without talking about books. Which brings me back to Enid Blyton.

She’s the one who started it. As soon as I learned to read, I read. Her books, those aimed at very young children of which I was one, were the first. They made a lasting impression that shaped the way I have viewed the world ever since.

The books were Adventures of the Wishing Chair, The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. My well-thumbed copies are around the house somewhere; I passed them on to my daughters. The children in these books have names like Dick and Fanny. Other character names I can still recall all these years later: Chinky, Silky, Moonface, the Saucepan Man. Hell, if I read the books now, I’d see innuendos everywhere and wonder quite what she was stirring into her tea while she wrote them.

But back then I possessed nothing but childhood innocence and a mind like a dry sponge ready to soak up whatever spilled its way. And spill Enid did.

I gasped with astonishment when the chair’s legs first sprouted feathery wings that enabled Dick or Fanny or whoever to embark on magical adventures. Or when the top of the Faraway Tree rotated to reveal a new and wondrous land that Dick, etc were able to enter for, yep, you guessed it, magical adventures.

To my fifty-year-old self, this all seems unutterably twee. But my five-year-old eyes were opened to the infinite worlds of possibilities that can be contained within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me.

One of my friends calls me a dreamer. He’s probably right. And it’s all your fault, Enid bloody Blyton. You set me on a path that I still follow. You changed my life. For that I thank you.