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Femme fatale

Just recently, I’ve been thinking about femme fatales. Not through any personal desire, you understand, but merely in a writing context.

Femme fatale (“that’s yer actual French,” as Delboy might say) translates as “fatal woman”, which is quite a burden to carry if you think about it. Of course, the femme fatale is a staple diet of cinema, especially from the noir films of the thirties and forties. I think here of Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

Then we can come right up to date with Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.

The idea of a femme fatale has existed in the culture and myths of many civilisations. Cleopatra can be classed as such, not to mention Biblical figures Salome and Jezebel. The femme was a common figure in the Middle Ages, when even Eve was considered a wicked woman, and during the Romantic period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the femme flourished through the art of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and the writing of people like John Keats (La Belle Dame sans Merci) and especially the gothic novel The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796 and featuring Matilda, who seduces the hero Ambrosio and helps in the destruction of fifteen-year-old Antonia using magic. Matilda proved so popular a character that she was used by Edgar Allan Poe, and she eventually became Camilla, one of the Brides of Dracula in the Bram Stoker novel Dracula (1897).

Of course, a good femme fatale can enhance any novel. In James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress, Joan Medford is under suspicion over the death of her husband, and is forced to wait tables and undertake a series of perilous risks to hit the big time. Likewise, in Stephen King’s Misery, Annie Wilkes is driven to drastic measures to keep her favourite author close by.

In the New York Times bestseller And When She Was Good, by Laura Lippman, Heloise is a devoted mum, but in hotel rooms throughout her area she is the woman of every man’s dreams. But, of course, this secret life is crumbling, and her future is about to take interesting turns.

As yet, I haven’t created a femme fatale of my own. My two favourite characters to date are the lovely Judith Wiseman and the incredibly intelligent and sensible Grace Templeman, who appear in both of my John Withers novels. However, if I was going to write someone into one of my stories, she would have to be very much like probably the greatest femme fatale of them all … Mata Hari.

If you don’t know her, check her out!

Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, known as Mata Hari (1876-1917)

War in literature

There have been many great books written about and around war. Take Grahame Greene’s Our Man in Havana, the 18th of his 27 books, which is set in Cuba during the Cold War and which pastiches many of the spy novels of the time and lampoons both British and American spy agencies. Another of his novels, The Quiet American, is set during the Vietnam War.

I have mentioned Joseph Heller in a previous blog, but his Catch-22 is undoubtedly a book that delivers a punch when it comes to psychological warfare. His “hero”, Yossarian, is a bombardier in Italy during the Second World War. He desperately wants to get out of flying any more missions by feigning a mental illness. But, as the authorities are quick to point out, you can’t possibly have a mental illness if you think you have one. The dreaded “Catch-22”.

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls recounts the story of a young American working with Republican guerillas in the mountains during the Spanish Civil War, while his other classic, A Farewell to Arms, has been dubbed “the premier American war novel from the First World War”. Hemingway himself had driven an ambulance in Italy during that war after failing enlistment in the US Army due to poor eyesight.

Birdsong, the fourth novel by Sebastian Faulks, has been compared to Hemingway, with his “stripped-back” descriptions of the Battle of the Somme, while Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead is based on the author’s own experiences with the 112th Cavalry Regiment during the Philippines Campaign in the Second World War.

Confederates attacking during the ACW

All of these war books have something for the reader, but I have a particular love of the American Civil War. You will, of course, immediately think of Gone With the Wind, the sprawling novel by Margaret Mitchell which led to the equally sprawling 1939 film of the same name starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. The book was, in fact, the only one written by Mitchell, despite constant pleading by her publisher. A novella she wrote as a teenager came to light after her death in 1949. Gone With the Wind was spread over 1,472 pages, was published in 1936 and won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. The characters of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler have gone down in literary history.

However, that is not the book I reach for. My choice is a considerably slimmer volume (a mere 55,000 words compared with Mitchell’s 426,590!) which was first published in book form in 1895 (after a short story version was printed in 200 city daily papers and 550 weeklies). The original title had been “Private Fleming: His Various Battles”, but the author eventually changed it to The Red Badge of Courage, referring, of course, to wounds sustained during combat.

The author, Stephen Crane, was born in 1871, six years after the war ended. The ninth surviving child of Methodist parents, he began writing at the age of four, and had several pieces published before he was 16. His first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, was not a success, but The Red Badge of Courage brought him international acclaim. He died tragically young in 1900.

The book tells the story of 18-year-old Henry, a private in the fictional 304th New York Regiment, who wonders whether he will remain brave in the face of battle. However, during the fighting he deserts, and the book relates his redemption and how he returns to his regiment to become the flag-bearer for his triumphant army.

I love a happy ending!!


Sporting authors

I have been a fan of Burnley FC since February 1964, when a mate invited me up to White Hart Lane to see his favourite team play. I had never been too interested in professional football, preferring the kick-arounds we had down the local park and out on the Butts. But I went with him, and then felt that I should support the opposition just to wind him up! Burnley were two-up inside four minutes in the FA Cup tie, and my heart was lost to the team! The fact that Spurs eventually ran out 4-3 winners did not dampen my ardour.

Burnley 1964 Team group. Back row L to R: B O’Neil, Alex Elder, D Walker, Adam Blacklaw, J Robson, Jimmy Adamson. Centre: J Price A Bellamy, F Smith, H Thomson, B Miller, J Talbut, J Angus. Front: Andy Lochhead, Willie Morgan, Ray Pointer, Mr. Harry Potts – Manager, Willie Irvine. On ground: M.Buxton, S Todd.

There have been times of thick and thin since then (yes, I know, more thin than thick!), but my support has never wavered.

This got me thinking about famous authors, as you would expect. I knew that Arthur Conan Doyle played in goal for Portsmouth, but what I didn’t know was that it was the original town team. In fact, the creator of Sherlock Holmes was one of the founding members of Portsmouth AFC, playing under the pseudonym of “A. C. Smith”. The club folded in 1896, two years before the present club was formed.

As a student at Dublin University, Irish author and playwright Samuel Beckett played in two first-class cricket matches (both against Northamptonshire) in 1925 and 1926. As a matter of interest, he scored a total of 35 runs and his bowling gave up 64 runs without taking a wicket. On receiving his 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature, he earned the double distinction of being “the only Nobel laureate to have played first-class cricket”. He also excelled at rugby and was a light-heavyweight boxer.

Author of titles such as “The Bonfire of the Vanities”, Tom Wolfe spent two years playing semi-professional baseball. Then, in 1952, he had a try-out with the New York Giants, but was cut after only three days for not being good enough. He subsequently concentrated on a PhD in American Studies and pursued a writing career.

Roald Dahl’s school report of 1929 gives us a fascinating glimpse into the young author’s sporting prowess. Under GAMES, it was stated that he was “A first rate forward for the First XV. Awarded school colours.” However, at BOXING he was “still rather slow and ponderous; will be good when quicker”. Unfortunately, he did not pursue a sporting future, and after flying fighters during the Second World war, he settled into a life of writing.

I have enjoyed my trip round the sporting authors, but I shall finish (as is only fitting) with my team.

I present a photo of the one and only time Burnley have won the FA Cup. We beat Liverpool 1-0. The year? 1914.

Until next time…

When fact invades fiction!

In 2016, when the plot for Bakerton was filling my head, I also had ideas for a couple of other books. One of them revolved around a young Anglo-Saxon girl, probably aged sixteen or seventeen, who found herself caught up in the great Viking invasion of Britain in the 9th century. For those who need a little historical background, I should say that, after years of skirmishing and minor attempts at invasion, the Vikings finally launched their attack in 865AD, when Ivan the Boneless led what became known as the “Great Heathen Army” ashore in East Anglia. Modern-day experts are unsure of the size of this army, with estimates as low as 1,000 men to over 10,000. What is clear is that the famed Viking longships could carry only around 30 men, so the sight of the mighty armada must have been impressive, while at the same time frightening indeed.

As it turned out, the Vikings had not carried horses with them, so the local Saxons obligingly gave them mounts in exchange for their safety, allowing the Vikings to plunder and pillage their way across great swathes of the country, eventually setting up their base at Norvik, which later became York.

My heroine would have to fight these Vikings in an effort to free her younger brother, who they had abducted and transported north into Northumbria.

When I created my young leading character, I wanted her father to be the village blacksmith so that he could make a very special sword for her, one cast from iron and steel, which was a time-consuming and specialist skill at that time. I had already sub-titled the girl as being “Maid of Steel”. I hope you appreciate the double-meaning of that!!

I then had to give her a name. A real Anglo-Saxon name. In my book, she needed to be strong and capable, which led me to “Meghan”, which means just that. Perfect!

Then, at the end of 2016, another woman, perhaps less heroic than mine was going to be, appeared on the scene. No, she wasn’t after a red-haired Viking, but she had her eyes set on conquest. Meghan Markle came ashore, scuppering my book in the process. Nobody would believe that my heroine predated Miss Markle, so I toyed with changing the title of my book. Instead of Meghan: Maid of Steel, I briefly toyed with Darel: Maid of Steel. While Anglo-Saxon Darel means “tenderly loved”, which my character definitely was, it didn’t have the same ring to it. So I shelved the project.

Perhaps now that MM has left these shores with her booty (probably for the last time), it might be opportune for me to resurrect Meghan: Maid of Steel.

What do you think?

Missed Treasure?

I want to tell you a story!

Strangely enough, it’s not really about writing, but literature does play a small part at the end of the story.

I learnt to play chess at the age of 12, while attending Alton County Secondary School in Hampshire. Yes, it was many years ago! It was a fairly big school (around 1500 pupils, as I recall), and had a reasonable size chess club,. which I joined with a flourish as soon as I felt sufficiently competent and sure that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself.

I settled in well, and even played in a couple of matches against other schools. So far, so good.

Then, the teacher decided to hold a knockout tournament to find a SCHOOL CHAMPION. Have you ever been a School Champion? Imagine the kudos that would bring. Walking the corridors of education like a colossus, safe in the knowledge that you were the very best at the most cerebral of games. You were the School Champion of Chess! Yes, I wanted it.

I duly won the first couple of games, admittedly against the real losers in the club, trying not to rub their noses in it too much. It was just so easy. Then things began to get tougher. As in all knockout events, the further you go, the harder the opposition. I was coming up against the 15-year-olds, the creme de la creme of the chess world as I knew it. I had to really work hard, but I managed to fight my way to a semi-final against … the best player in the school. Oh, dear.

There was a large audience for our showdown over lunch-time, and I held my own all the way through, hoping that he would make a mistake. Was I lucky? Well, as it happens, I was! It is long in the distant past now, so I can’t remember the position, but I was able to take advantage and secure a victory that nobody (least of all, me) had expected. The final would be a doddle after this!

It had been pointed out at the beginning of the tournament that the winner would get a certificate (whoopee!), but then the teacher informed us that the finalists would each get a book, the winner to decide which one he wanted. Yes, Treasure Island was mine! After all, I couldn’t lose now, could I?

Just like one of those badly written plays on television, you can see how this is going to end, I’m sure. I lost, of course, against a boy who, over the previous months, had never ever beaten me before. I was crestfallen. Treasure Island had escaped my clutches.

Now, all these years later, resting on my desk in front of me is a book bearing a certificate which states that it was “Awarded to PHILIP CLINKER for CHESS” and signed by the Headmaster, A. H. Reeves. Yes, they’d even spelled my name wrong (I’m PHILLIP with two ells!).

And the book, I hear you ask? It is George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, a book I had never heard of and which I have never read to this day.

It may be a classic, but it holds too many sad memories for me!

It could have been so different!

When my first book was rolling round my head, I knew immediately what it would be called. After all, the fictional town of Bakerton had been my first inspiration, closely followed by its enigmatic and unorthodox sheriff, even before the crux of a plot ever developed.

But this got me to thinking: had other authors experienced name changes before settling on their seminal works? Of course they had!

Let’s start with our old friend F. Scott Fitzgerald. He toyed with Trimalchio in West Egg, Under the Red, White and Blue, and The High-Bouncing Lover, among others, before reluctantly settling on The Great Gatsby. As he himself noted about the title, “It’s OK, but my heart tells me I should have called it Trimalchio.”

Bram Stoker considered The Dead Un-dead, but eventually preferred Dracula, thus opening the door to later productions by Hammer Films and many others. The Undead, of course, is something entirely different!

Joseph Heller had a nightmare with numbers. He wanted to call his book Catch-18, but his editor pointed out that a book entitled Mila 18 had been released the previous year. Undaunted, Heller tried Catch-11, but the original Ocean’s Eleven film was then in cinemas, so the idea was scrapped. Heller toyed with several other numbers, before his editor went back to the number 11 and doubled it!

James Joyce’s 1914 book of short stories began as Ulysses in Dublin, but he changed it to Dubliners. Ulysses became a title in its own right when it was published in serial form in the American journal The Little Review between 1918 and 1920.

Then we almost didn’t have Pride and Prejudice! Jane Austen had chosen the title First Impressions; however, Margaret Holford had already published her novel First Impressions; or the Portrait, so Jane had to think again. Lucky for us, perhaps.

Who was it who said that the hardest part of writing was actually coming up with the storyline?!!

Celebrating the pioneers

I have been working with words since I started my apprenticeship as a proof-reader/compositor at the age of sixteen. That was a little over a month after England had won the World Cup!

In the intervening years, I have learnt about many people who have shaped the history of the printed word – people like Eric Gill and Adrian Frutiger (check them out!). But the pioneers we should all really look up to are Johann Gutenberg and William Caxton.

In the old days, vast tomes had to be hand-written by learned scribes using quills and woodcuts, but some time around 1445, while working as a goldsmith in his own factory in Mainz, Germany, Gutenberg invented the art of printing using movable type. Three years later, Gutenberg entered into partnership with Johann Fust, who financed a printing press, although the partnership lasted only seven years, when they fell out and Gutenberg was forced to give up his machinery, leaving him ruined.

However, Englishman William Caxton had been living in Bruges and later Cologne, where he learnt the art of printing. It was in Cologne that he published the first book in English.

Two years later, he set up his wooden press in Westminster and produced the Dictes of Sayengis of the Philosophres, the first book printed in England. He published over a hundred titles covering a remarkably wide range of subjects: school books, law books, religious and philosophical works, poetry (including Chaucer), historical literature and romances.

These days, books are taken for granted. In 2014, UK publishers released over twenty books per hour. This equates to around 184,000 new and revised titles in the year, making the UK the number one publisher per capita in the world, ahead of the unlikely second and third placed Taiwan and Slovenia. Of the UK’s total, around 60,000 were digital, a clear sign that REAL books still hold sway for the majority of the reading public.

If you haven’t done so lately… why not pick up a book now?

Music, maestro!

Hi, after receiving the book proof of “Thurlow Junction” this week, my mind wandered to a quote in it that I am particularly proud of. While chasing the baddie in his beloved MX5, Sheriff Withers contemplates turning on his CD of Django tunes. But: “He needed to concentrate, not be wafted away into some dark, smoky French jazz club, where sinewy women and beret-wearing stevedores locked hips together over cheap whisky and Gauloises cigarettes.”

Withers just loves Django, as do I. Funny that! Django Reinhardt was a Belgian gypsy who grew up to become one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time. Together with his friend, virtuoso violinist Stephane Grapelly, Django formed the Quintet of the Hot Club of France in 1934, and until his death in 1953, he performed to wide acclaim, playing classic numbers by Cole Porter and Gershwin, among others, as well as creating his own masterpieces, most notably “Djangology” and “Nuances”. Check him out. You won’t regret it.

This chain of thought inevitably led me to the subject of jazz in literature. There are numerous references to the music, of course, not least in the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Great Gatsby” and “Tender Is The Night”). But I was more interested in fictional characters who actually played jazz.

In V, the 1963 debut novel by Thomas Pynchon, one of the minor characters is an innovative saxophone player by the name of McClintic Sphere. It is believed he is based on real-life saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. Not only that, but the name Sphere has a real resonance with jazz buffs, as this is the middle name of pianist Thelonius Monk.

Sherlock Holmes, of course, was a noted violinist, but there is no evidence to suggest he played anything like jazz. However, there is one fictional icon who really can get down with the flow. She’s only eight years old and has a brother named Bart. Yes, you’ve guessed it… the star of the show is Lisa Simpson, the baritone saxophone-playing daughter of Homer and Marge. Jazz is safe in her yellow fingers!

But if you want to be serious, there’s always Django…

What’s in a name?

I find that one of the most enjoyable parts of writing a novel is the creation of the characters’ names.

Take, for instance, Mr Sumo, my villain in Thurlow Junction. As I make clear: “He wasn’t Japanese. And he wasn’t a wrestler. But Mr Sumo was a very large man. And a very strong one.”

I wanted my villain to be the cool ninja-type who excels and glories in the absolute skill that he possesses – the art of killing people without use of weapons. I also visualised him wearing a huge red kimono and enjoying the beauty of his garden and the twittering of the birds.

Famous authors, also, think long and hard about their creations. For his novel 1984, George Orwell was looking for a character name which imparted the feeling of power and strength, as well as giving him an aura of a man of the people, an ‘Everyman’. So, when he wrote the book, completed in 1948 and published the following year, he chose the first name of the Prime Minister who had only recently guided us to victory in the Second World War and the most common surname in the country at that time. Thus, Winston Smith, one of literature’s greatest characters, was born.

George R R Martin, author of Game of Thrones, has gone on record as stating that he cannot write about a character until he has come up with the name. The family name Stark means “strong” or “sharp”.

One of my favourite authors, Lee Child, recounts the story of the birth of his most famous character. During a period of unemployment, he filled in by running errands, such as going to the supermarket for the elderly. One day, his wife pointed out that, as he was often taking things off the top shelves, perhaps he might get a permanent job as a “reacher”. Light-bulb moment. Jack Reacher had come into the world!

Holly Golightly, the charming socialite heroine of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, began life as Connie Gustafson. In fact, it was only when the hand-edited manuscript was auctioned in 2013 that it was seen that all instances of “Connie” were scratched out in red and “Holly” substituted. Perhaps a clear case of an author changing his mind at the last minute, this time clearly for the best.

See you next time!

A little tease…

As publication of “Thurlow Junction” fast approaches, we thought we might tease you just a little by offering a section from the Prologue of the book, just to whet your appetite and get you in the mood for the latest adventure with Sheriff John and Deputy Dawg Janowski…

It is almost dark, and he is running. Scared. Scared of what has happened, and scared of what could happen. He is running away, every painful step releasing a tiny grain of hope that he could escape from this nightmare and perhaps get back to a normal life. But who is he kidding?

He stops to get his bearings. He knows Thurlow pretty well, having been brought up here, and he recognises the corner of Silver and Cherbury Streets, the latter leading to the old, long-forgotten railway sidings. This is the first time he has been able to catch his breath, and he hears the wheeze of his chest and sees the puffs in the cold air as he exhales sharply. He is sweating, but feels cold. He rubs his hand over his brow, sensing the dampness. His ears are pricked, like an animal expecting predators. He feels a wry smile curl round his lips, realising that, after all, he is indeed prey for a larger beast.

Silence, save the muted sounds of cars over on the highway, some leaving Thurlow headed for Bakerton, others aiming the other way to the city of Altona, the place where his nightmare began. He throws his arms around himself, suddenly feeling the chill of the night air.

He heads down Cherbury, now at a steady trot, his breathing easier after the few seconds’ rest he has allowed his body. It is getting much darker now, the houses beginning to take on their black, more sinister appearance, as if they are about to crowd round him and squeeze the life out of him. Some of them wink at him, their little lights going on and off as their people move from room to room. He craves the normality of it all, and still he trots.

He reaches the familiar creek where they used to go tadpoling as boys, and he takes the opportunity to stop again, still listening, but relaxing just that little bit more. A car approaches, so he crouches, nerves jangling and body shivering, with both cold and fear. He slides down the bank and ducks his head under a clump of roots, willing the car to go on its merry way. It slows to negotiate the slight bend leading to the new housing estate, and for a few moments its headlight beam picks him out. How can the driver not see him? He shrinks back, gripping a root to avoid sliding into the shallow water just below. He looks down, and then he sees it… the blood, now congealing on his hand and around his fingers. A tear fills his eye, because he knows it is not his blood.