CARDIFF BOY by Bernard John

Yesterday saw me in a rather fetching, if slightly tighter than I remember, jacket prancing about in front of a small audience, getting in the way of a proper poet at his book launch ‘Somewhere in South Wales’ (okay Caldicot).

Bernard John read from his new book ‘Cardiff Boy’, a collection of his poems about and inspired by his childhood in Cardiff and his family’s roots. I can wholeheartedly recommend getting, and reading, his volume. I say ‘and reading’ because I have acquired many books at launches and  ‘events’ as a goodwill gesture and read, perhaps, a token number of words from many of them before they slide backwards on my shelves never to be seen again. This is not one of those volumes. I have read most of it, will finish it with alacrity and revisit it many times.

Bernard read selections from his book at the launch in two tranches and both inspired me to rush home after the event and spend the evening reading more from the book. Difficult at the best of times to carve out such a space, but in the circumstances, it required even more of an effort of will as the carefully constructed order of the launch day disintegrated in the face of a family car crash (literally – no-one hurt thank goodness) and myriad minor examples of the entropy of life. Relative calm eventually restored, I treated myself to a quiet period of contemplation and solace in Bernard’s words.

Bernard has had a fascinating life and some of the inspirations for that are revealed in this volume. Growing up in Cardiff immediately after the war, his Cardiff was not the bright reconstructed persona of Cool Cymru (where did that go?) and gentrified docklands. His was the harder world of brick and stone terraces and steel works, rail yards and coal with the ribbon of the Taff flowing through it and the grassy strip alongside it. It obviously gave him character and his twinkling smile must have given much joy to Cardiff in return.

I helped the publisher, Carys Books, out at the launch and managed a little by-play with Bernard about his background and life as an introduction to proceedings. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in the day as both Bernard and Sam Knight, the boss of Carys Books have been inspirational in various ways.

Sorry you missed the launch, but you can still be part of the experience.

Bernard’s book is available at bookshops or direct from Carys books new website


The Chief Executive of Hachette Livre, the world’s third largest publisher, was reported in the Guardian yesterday as saying that ebooks are ‘a stupid product’, that is unlikely to see further growth.

Now I have a lot of time for Hachette, they were the company that stood up to the mighty Amazon after all, and stopped the decline of content reward to zero. They refused to cede control of pricing to Amazon and thus put a temporary dent in the onward march of a potential monopolist retail giant (after all Capitalism requires competition to thrive right?).

However I am not entirely sure Arnaud Nourry has got it quite right this time. Don’t get me wrong, the ebook market has plateaued and is if anything on a downward (a slight downward) gradient and I can see lots of reasons for that continuing, but Nourry’s reasoning looks a little odd although it contains nuggets of truth.

He reckons that ‘as publishers’ they have not done a great job of going digital, and I think he is probably correct, but his reasoning from there, the details of why growth has stalled is flawed. He thinks the problem lies in lack of imagination and digital know how, hence Hachette’s acquisition of three digital game companies over the last couple of years.

Is he right?

Well the holy grail a while back when video games started making it big, was open ended interactive storylines that went where you wanted them to and each person’s Mutant Ninja Zombie Rabbit IV would be a unique discourse. A truly postmodern retelling with each reading if you will.

It hasn’t worked yet as far as I know. I am not a big video game fan so I cannot say definitively that there are not wonder products that deliver exactly that experience out there, but I think they would have made more of a cultural splash if there were. Call Of Duty Modern Warfare Remastered for example starts and ends at the same place whatever you do inbetween. Indeed there are whole episodes where whatever you choose to do, if you wish to progress you have to fulfil certain plot conditions. This may a stunningly clever philosophical commentary on the inevitability of human action and the false illusion of freedom of will, or it may be a product of lack of processing power and the need to deliver a marketable game where (spoiler alert) the good guys win in the last reel.

Having said that you could go for the 3D, multi path, envisioned view of the ebook, but is it still a book? One of his criticisms of the ebook was ‘The ebook is a stupid product. It is exactly the same as print, except it’s electronic. There is no creativity, no enhancement, no real digital experience.’

And of course there is the appeal for book lovers. If we want film we’ll watch it. If we want music with our reading we’ll pick it thanks very much (‘no thanks’ generally for me – reading is an immersive experience which occupies all my faculties if it is good enough, I don’t want distractions). I want the author’s vision of the experience, be it action, character development, plot, descriptive power or authorial world view, rather than a computer programmer’s. (I know there are creative developers who direct the story, plot, graphics etc but they are working with technical parameters moderated by experts. The more collaboration involved the more like a camel the thing gets – look at movies/films/TV).

The problems with ebooks that are killing growth are:
Pricing (who wants to go the music route where ‘content providers’, the actual creative raison d’être of the ‘industry,’ are treated as incidental to the process and paid virtually nothing for their efforts and sales?

Ownership. It has dawned on many people that their purchases of books are not purchases. They are rentals, and providers who get pernickety about consumer behaviour have been known to suddenly withdraw access to whole libraries of books. I have paid thousands of pounds for my books and they are mine. I can do what I like with them. Ebooks on the other hand are not yours. And you have them available at the whim of someone else. Not the author, not the publisher in most cases but the retailer. Imagine if a high street retailer’s van pulled up outside your house one morning and said they thought you might be letting other people read your books and they were taking your entire library back?

Sort your marketing model out before you start creating an ebook ‘experience’ that is no longer a book.

There is also the problem of ‘flicking’ back and forth between pages. Generally in fiction not much of a problem – unless you want to try and find where Pierre Bezuhov first comes into the story – but in non-fiction and say rules for games (a personal bugbear of mine) it is a killer –there are ways of sorting it, do it.

He was right however when he said that allowing ebook prices to drop to $2 is going to kill the infrastructure and author’s revenues. Modern supermarket approaches to bookselling have already caused a massive thinning out of the infrastructure of publishing with big houses gobbling up small independent publishers and small bookshops gone. Titles are remaindered before they hit the shelves in a bid to cut perceived losses based on weird pre sale review algorithms and a fire sale mentality.

Ebooks may be a ‘stupid’ product but the problem lies not in the idea of a portable compact reading library but in tech companies interference in marketing models.

A ‘smart’ product may be whizzy and bright and may have geek appeal, but it won’t be a book.

B****y Hell That was fast!

I was writing a bit of whimsy, gawd ‘elp us! when my email flashed an incoming note from a publisher. I was a bit surprised because I wasn’t expecting anything at the moment. There is a piece with an American publisher which allegedly is still being considered for publication but which I expect is propping up a wobbly desk somewhere and I would be (pleasantly) amazed if I heard any more from them. There is another story out there, but I know that publisher and they aren’t going to reply just yet. Then there was a story I’d submitted to a prestigious SF magazine for consideration, but that was yesterday and I couldn’t imagine anyone being that quick.


I guess some things suck so bad that all you need is a glance.

First up, I’m impressed they even got around to looking at it within 24 hours. That is frankly amazing.
Second I’m distinctly teed off that they can take one look and bin it. I know, I know, and they were quite clear that ‘it wasn’t what they were looking for at the moment’, but let’s face it that sits right up there with ‘ it’s not you it’s me’ in the greater scheme of crappy let downs. I think what we can read from that sequence of events is – reader opened the email and went; ‘Nah fam, s’rubbish innit?’ or the US equivalent.

I’m guessing that given the number I was in the submissions queue and the fact it was c12,000 words long, they didn’t actually read the whole thing before pressing the preformatted get stuffed email button. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful it wasn’t really ‘get stuffed’, my ego is fragile enough, and it is nice not to be left hanging about for months wondering what is going on, but…

It would have been nice if they could have perhaps waited another 24 hours just to preserve the mystique, the glimmer of a possibility that they may have actually read more than the title or first paragraph before going, ‘Jeez, no way!’– bin. I mean I could treasure that 24 hours of hope without fretting and at least buy into the ‘not quite what we are looking for at the moment.’ But less than 24 hours! I mean how long have they actually been working in the States? A morning? That means they probably didn’t even get past the covering letter.

Ah well.

Maybe leave the whimsy about blood doning for the time being, and go and sulk for a bit.

A Muse of Fire?

Poetry has reared its (ugly in my case?) head.

I said somewhere in my ‘about’ piece that I don’t write poetry, or at least poetry that I was prepared to share.

That turned to be one of those things that almost as soon as I said it, I thought about it again and immediately started doing what I said I didn’t/wouldn’t. I find I do that a lot, awful character trait.

In this case I wrote three related poems about playing rugby.

You can probably see why I said I don’t write poetry.

I don’t think the result was as awful as it sounds.

It was really a collection of sound experiences from when I played rugby and isn’t trying to address directly any major themes of life and death. It was an exploration of the low key camaraderie and experience of one facet of people’s lives.

It was rugby because that was the sport that occupied a large proportion of my recreational time from about the age of sixteen to thirty eight. It was what I knew. This isn’t the International end of things, it isn’t even the most exalted bit of my low key rugby life, it is the week in week out recreational clashes that make up the vast majority of rugby played around the world. Fun, banter, but occupying a place in the players’ hearts.

I say ‘it’ rather than ‘they’ because although there were three pieces and they were printed as three poems in the anthology ‘The Tall and the Short’, they are very closely related and deal with one event. They are the Prelude, Game and Post Match Analysis and deal with a very tight slice of life, about two and a half hours that surround the build up and aftermath of a match. A tight slice repeated for weeks every year for years. A major part of life. My life anyway. And in fact, an insight into more than a silly game with an inflated bladder.

So much like all poetry really. A condensed, spare representation of something that offers a deeper insight into the human condition.

And I got hooked.

So as well as trying to finish novels, short stories and attempting to turn a screenplay I can’t sell into a novel (which I also probably won’t be able to sell!) I’m writing poetry now. The local writing group is looking to publish a book of poems to support the local library and I might subject them so to some of my efforts and see what they think.

In the meantime I’ve been tempted into offering a few for magazine publication and we’ll have to see what happens with those.

I think my problem here is that I have no overarching theme in mind for poetry. Each one tends to be a response to some odd stimulus, the source of which I am unsure. I suspect in the past these half formed blips in memory would have either subsided once more into the morass of what passes for my psyche or been scribbled down as ideas for short stories or passages in novels. Once having turned this tap on it seems difficult to turn off. Time will tell whether this diverts so much effort from prose that I need to think of a way of turning it off again.

Watch this space for a post bemoaning the fact I never get inspirational flashes of thought passing along my synapses any more.

Or maybe even some poetry?


I was looking through some old files yesterday when I came across a few notes written for a piece of flash fiction. Notes for a piece of flash fiction might seem like a redundant exercise. Flash fiction is so short, so condensed that notes may very quickly end up longer than the finished piece. But that isn’t necessarily a problem or a waste. The tightness required of very short fiction is such that, in theory at least, every word must serve a purpose. Having a bigger picture in your head and ensuring the writing encapsulates that picture as pithily as possible is no bad thing.

With that in mind I dug out the finished piece. ‘Gaslight’ was published a couple of years ago in ‘The Tall and the Short’ an anthology of short fiction, excerpts from longer pieces and poems, by various authors.

When I looked at it again I realised that I had probably cheated. There was a requirement to keep the piece under a thousand words and I had achieved that aim. I wondered at the ending however. The reader is left hanging – appalling pun, as the piece turns on something or someone dangling at the end of a rope. As I read it again I put myself in the place of the reader. The editor had expressed doubts about the ending but I was adamant. I think I was fed up with it and I can see why from my notes. It started out as 262 very tight words from notes at least four times that long. There was a feeling that 262 words was however too short and that elements needed more explanation or better setting so it ballooned to 996. The reverse of how I like writing to go – splurge it down and then refine, although I have mentioned ad infinitum my dislike of redrafting/rewriting. Much worse to expand however, than cut. Having said that, my problem is that expanded from the original size though it may be the poor reader still has no consummation with this piece. They don’t know what happens to the protagonist or what the object of his peril really is, whether there really is any peril even. I know of course but I should perhaps at least have hinted. I still like the idea of open ended stories, particularly horror genre pieces, but I still feel a twinge of guilt at how open this piece ends.

I would alter it I think if I were to write it again from scratch. I am even tempted to expand it a little to ‘finish’ the story but that risks the ending being twee and too cosy. If anything I think I’d like to leave more possibilities of awfulness in the readers mind. I am even tempted to go back to the 262 word version, make it 300 words and leave it at that.

Of course I won’t bother. I don’t think.

The piece is published. Anything except a major rewrite into a full short story is going to end up like all those ‘Director’s cuts’ in films that end up much worse than the original. Other, much better known, authors have of course gone back and altered books, usually not for the better. Stephen King rewrote and reinstated about 400 pages of cuts in ‘The Stand’.  General critical opinion is that the editor did a great job on the first edition and there was good reason to lose those 400 pages. Four hundred! That’s chutzpah all right, putting back in 400 pages of extraneous fluff. When I get as famous as King maybe I’ll come back and tweak the ending. I doubt it would be 400 words, let alone 400 pages.


If anyone was wondering, I will be writing more about writing and less about ‘Stuff’ soon – honest!

Indeed, there will be Part 4 of Pendragon later this week (written and being mulled over about long term direction as I write – well, it will be as soon as I post this and get back to work!).

There is an SF piece I may have mentioned before which started as a long short story – target c10K words which is already at 17K and nowhere near the end so I think it is safe to say it is a novella at least, and probably a novel. Decisions need to be made about cutting or expanding certain passages. If it’s a novel then character and place need more work I think, and sub plots which were truncated probably need to be expanded and reintegrated to the main story arc at some point. Maybe more about that process later.

There is another long SF short story, c12K words, which I have out with a magazine at the moment – been with them for a while, which is a good thing as they have passed it on to an editor. Not sure whether it will see the light of day. I hope so – they are a very good magazine, and it was nice just to get over the first hurdle with them. I won’t embarrass them or myself at this stage by saying who it is. Many a slip etc. but fingers crossed.

There are several other things that all these stories were a ‘break from’ which need pushing forward. So I hope you can see my ‘ramblings’ are simply a way of expressing a general concern about life while I let the writing ferment in the background (and more importantly, a way of putting off real hard graft!).

So – back to the word mill.




As writers we expect to be able to write about pretty much what we want without being harassed by the State or by secret police. This isn’t a realistic expectation everywhere, and I suppose those of us old enough to remember the Cold War think of the Soviet bloc first, closely followed by the continuing repressive regimes of places like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran amongst others. Write what you like there and there will be dire consequences.

We don’t normally think of the USA as being in the same stable as those sorts of ideological prisons. On the contrary, the US enshrines freedom of speech in her constitution – and a good thing too. I admire the USA in so many ways that it hurts when something like this case rears its head.

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave apparently isn’t so keen on freedom of speech when one of her brave boys, who made them proud, does the All American thing and makes some money out of his efforts.

As I said, I like Americans and the USA, and think that they and it stand for many great things. The way they treat their ordinary heroes can leave a lot to be desired though. Ira Hayes was a well known case in point, and if you don’t know about him you should: he was one of the US Marines in that iconic photograph of Old Glory being raised on Iwo Jima, but he didn’t do so well after the war. That was mainly down to neglect and casual racism, Hayes was a Pima Native American, but the US Government is also, it would seem, capable of deliberate vindictive pettiness towards America’s heroes.

Matt Bissonnette, under the pen name of Mark Owen, wrote ‘NO EASY DAY’, a first hand account of his experience with US Navy Seal Team Six that attacked and killed Osama Bin Laden. Writing this account was, apparently, a major crime which brought the full weight of the US state system to bear on him. His fault, supposedly, was breaching a ‘non-disclosure agreement’ with the US Government regarding his actions in the Navy.

That may be the position in strict fact, but the way the Government has reacted makes them look petty, vindictive and frankly elitist. When and if President Obama and/or his senior advisers and generals write about this incident, you can bet they won’t be hounded through the courts to bankruptcy.

The argument is that Bissonnette should have passed the manuscript to the Department of Defense for approval but he didn’t. The DoD and Navy argue that the book revealed things that were prejudicial to the security of the USA. Bissonnette refutes this accusation.  Faced with the threat of criminal proceedings, which he was unlikely to win given the self interest of the state in the proceedings, Bissonnette ‘negotiated’ a deal.

He won’t get put away for life if he hands over all current and future proceeds of the book to the state. He forfeits the rights to any film deals from the book and any money from talks he has given regarding his activities. I can see that there may be a case for making it plain that in future clearance should be sought directly of the US Government (he was advised by a lawyer that there was no need). However, to take the man’s means of making a living away from him in its entirety makes the US State look positively evil. The disclosures, if any, are still out there, but the main interest of the US State appears to be to ensure that it gets all the cash involved.

If this were Russia the US would be up in arms, Congressmen would be falling over themselves to castigate this massive injustice and state bullying.

It is a huge and vindictive attack on freedom of expression. We fought a Cold War, with the US on the side of the Good Guys, in part at least, to protect the individual from state oppression, to enable the little guy to write the truth, free from the oppressive power of the state.

What happened America?

Did the ‘End of History’ mean the end of humanity and justice? Here was a little guy, not an ordinary guy by any means, but not one of the power elites, who the USA asked, on its behalf, and the behalf of the Western democracies, to put himself in danger. He did it willingly and successfully. When he returned he exercised that freedom of speech he thought was part of the package of values he was fighting for. And it was snatched away from him. This is a travesty of western values. The administration and judicial system in the US should be ashamed of this one. I had hoped, and still hope, for better things from what I continue to think of as the bastion of western democratic freedom.

Collecting Disappointment

I’ve been collecting disappointment again.
I know I’ve written stuff about his before, but having had a few bits of success you think that it might keep going. When you hit the bumps again it is a real pain.
I read with delight therefore the bit about JK Rowling getting rejected again for her first ‘serious, adult’ novel by the same publishers who rejected Harry Potter. They didn’t know it was her of course and I’m not Rowling, but it was a little something to hug to myself along with the latest collection of ‘Not quite what we’re looking for, but do keep trying and we hope you have success elsewhere’ emails/letters. I did get one from a US magazine which, while not different in the ‘right’ way was refreshing in its tone. ‘This didn’t work for me.’ This at least made me go and have another look at the story from a critical point of view. (I still like it but at least it made me go through the process.)

I have always liked these stories of fallibility in the gatekeepers of publishing. When I was more uncritical I used to be something of a collector of what I suspect are often apocryphal stories of agents, publishers, directors, producers etc being sent manuscripts of fantastically successful books/films and rejecting them out of hand. I still have a clipping from the Daily Telegraph from years and years ago, probably 1980s, retailing a story of someone who sent out the original script for ‘Everyone goes to Rick’s’ with a couple of name changes. They received a massive number of rejections for the script which had eventually, some years earlier, made it to the screen under the revised name of Casablanca.

I have no idea of how true this story is of course. And before anyone thinks that a reputable newspaper wouldn’t make anything like this up, let me tell you I have at least five versions of the story of Action Man/GI Joe/Generic army figure’s rifle. His weapon was deemed to fall under the aegis of the anti-terrorism laws after the Twin Towers attacks and was impounded at airport security as not being suitable for transport in the plane. These stories were reported as happening at different airports for the most part – although Heathrow figures in two and occurred in flights both ways across the Atlantic. In two cases they appeared with obviously staged photographs and one person was obviously very unlucky as exactly the same thing happened to them again over a year after the first occasion! I remain uncertain whether the whole thing was made up (my best guess) or whether it happened once and everyone amended it for their own nefarious purposes on a slow news day.

Although I like the laughter at the failure to spot gold dust more than the urban myth of the impounded toy rifle I am not sure it soothes my nerves any better. It must be incredibly difficult to know what will sell and what won’t. Having attempted to read a couple of books this year and abandoned them as unreadable I am even less happy about why some of my work doesn’t get the nod. I read some material and think ‘this got published and mine didn’t! How bad is my stuff?’
Am I an undiscovered genius? Or completely wasting my time?

I don’t need an answer by the way!

So although it was superficially less comforting than the placatory rejections the ‘this didn’t work for me’ email was at least something I could get my hands on and check. It made me go and look as dispassionately and clinically as I could at what I had written. So well done for being honest at least, even if my stuff is better than Casablanca!

You wouldn’t want too many bits of refreshing honesty though.


On Sunday morning I was listening to the slot on Radio 4 at 0845 where someone talks in an extended secular version of thought for the day. Will Self had a few sessions a while back, Howard Jacobson had a slot a couple of weeks ago, and this coming Sunday it will be AL Kennedy. It isn’t always authors but they get a lot of the gigs.

The thought occurred to me that, whilst I like all these writers, both in terms of their work and listening to them talk about our society and the problems and joys of the world, (probably not so much the joys with those three! Although Jacobson can be good for an uplifting insight), I wonder why we should listen to authors so much.

Yes they sometimes have an insight into the human condition, but here we are giving them a slot on national radio to pontificate to us on matters about which frankly there are experts who should be able to speak more authoritatively.  Not necessarily the human condition of course; unless we are looking at psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, behavioural scientists of all ilks, but in matters of security, policing, military, employment, cultural direction (writing is one little bit) and myriad other subjects. Why do authors get the nod on these?

Probably because they are seen as communicators. Increasingly part of the baggage of being an author is being an all round communicator. As publishers withdraw  to a greater or lesser extent from publicising their own products, and as agents want the cash but not the effort of pushing their clients, authors get jiffed with doing the spadework of marketing themselves. Fine, they should be positive about their own work, but if they were great PR people, or market savvy tech heads or schmoozers personified, why would they have chosen a profession that involves being shut up in a room on their own with their imagination for company? Authors generally don’t want the hassle of that other side of the business, that’s why there are publishers and why agents managed to horn in on the process. But it seems authors get wheeled out anyway, when one might think they were better employed, er …writing.

So there we are, with authors being paraded to smile, sign books, chat on radio, contribute to TV arts shows if un/lucky, give lectures at literary events, peddle advice to wannabes on the writing for everyman/woman circuit. And now because some of them can string a coherent sentence together about the mythic resonance of the washerwoman as a mother earth figure in their latest oeuvre, they are invited to blab about anything that takes their fancy in a regular repeat radio slot.

What privileges their opinion over anyone else’s? They have a facility for the medium but is the medium really the message? Are those who are easy with creating an imaginary world and filling it with their interpretation of how people should behave, always the best people to comment on the real world where the characters are different and reactions intractable?

Just a thought.


And by the way BBC, I have many useful insights and I am available for recording whenever you want on any subject.


I recently read Howard Jacobson’s ‘Zoo Time’. I wish I’d read it before I wrote my ‘Fan Fiction and other Guff’ post, I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort by simply saying ‘read his book’. It’s interesting for me in particular as the character comes from Wilmslow, a place I know well. My father was the manager of the Employment Exchange there in the 1970s. The clientele of Jacobson’s character’s boutique is from a slightly later period than I remember. There was more old money around then, although that was mostly in Mobberley and Alderley vice Wilmslow and the first WAGs were about, although not yet labouring under that name. The place had an air of desperately, no, enthusiastically, wanting to sell out to a sort of post Thatcherite culture before its time, a barrow boy mentality of stacking anything high and selling it very dearly to any mug who would go for the glitz and bling. The rugby club was all flash and as it turned out no trousers when professionalism came along. Odd because that is exactly the sort of entrepreneurism the town loved.

Personal resonance aside (at least the geographical kind) Zoo time uses the vehicle of a writer writing about a writer (as Jacobson says – the sign that he is finished!). In fact he hammers the irony home by writing about a writer writing about writing and indeed about a writer writing about writing a piece where he wants the character to be a writer but he decides he has to make him a comedian. Unsurprisingly he fails. Not Jacobson who succeeds as he nearly always does, but the character of the writer he creates. He fails not only in this creation but in his marriage, his attempted seduction of his mother-in-law and his desire not to succumb to the dumbing down of publishing and book buying and not reading that has become the reality of corporate buyouts of the publishing houses. His character laments that there are no readers any longer, that no-one has readers. I wonder if I had read a review of this sometime and it had sat in my head waiting to pop out as if I had thought it myself?

Jacobson’s character in the end makes a success of resurrecting his writing career, a second wave if you like, by embracing the very forms and attitudes he has poured scorn on throughout the preceding chapters. If you weren’t reading a Jacobson book and you didn’t know his constant unapologetic support for intellectual quality in fiction you may think he was thinking of selling out himself. But in the end it is obvious that the genius of the think subverts the journey’s end.

I’d recommend this for anyone, particularly if you are struggling with writing professionally, but only if you are mentally strong, otherwise you may have abandoned the idea of writing for publication and certainly for paid publication well before you get to the end. A brilliant book as is the norm from Jacobson.