Tuesday, December 31, 2013

That Blitz Spirit

It is little remembered these days, but Britain was bombed during the First World War. The cunning Hun used zeppelins, and some extraordinary aircraft that pushed the envelope of aviation to its limit, to deliver bombs to East Anglia and, eventually, London.

The British did not take it well.

It’s hard to blame them. Wars were always fought far away, in someone else’s back yard, and—insofar as was possible in the chaos of war—hostilities were limited to active combatants. Floating bombs over the Channel to drop them on civilians, well, that just wasn’t cricket. It was also jolly well upsetting, and the people, as they are wont to do when upset, called upon Parliament to do something, anything—including ceasing hostilities with Germany—to end the rain of death.

This, of course, was what the Germans were hoping for; and they nearly succeeded. Throughout the war, the Huns maintained a giddy advantage: the rudimentary anti-aircraft batteries and comparatively-primitive aircraft of the British were completely useless against the German Zeppelins and only a little less useless against their more advanced airplanes.

(Quick aside: Britain’s scramble to catch up in this critical arms race was given a huge boost when they managed to shoot down one of the German planes. The German crew managed to land the crippled plane and the British captured it before they could destroy it. The importance of this event cannot be overstated: here was a pristine sample of their enemy’s technology that they could reverse engineered and use to their great advantage. Experts were immediately dispatched and soldiers were sent to guard the site. Unfortunately, during the night, the soldiers began rummaging through the plane for souvenirs. One of them grabbed a flare gun and promptly (by accident, one must suppose) shot a flare into the aircraft’s fuel tank. All that was left for the experts to study, when they arrived the next morning, was a charred hole in the ground.

Shocked into disbelief after reading that passage, I laid the book down and looked at my wife, who was reading her own book. “How on earth did you people win the war,” I asked her with true amazement. Without looking up from her reading she said, “God was on our side.”)

But, despite this and other misadventures, the British prevailed. The victory was not, however, assisted by cool heads and bravely in the face of adversity on the home front.

WWII, we are told, was different. This was when the Brits pulled together and displayed the grit and can-do spirit that shone like a beacon throughout their finest hour. Some would dispute this, but then there are always people who, after the fact, enjoy raining on everyone’s parade. I, personally, can’t vouch for the fortitude of that era as I was not there, but the few people I have talked to who were all seem to remember it as a jolly good time.

Hard times 1942.
But, fiction or not, that spirit is clearly in the past, for we are currently suffering through a crisis that makes the Blitz look like a fireworks party (the power has gone out) and the population appears stretched to the limit.

Perhaps you have been too busy playing with your new xbox 360 or streaming dodgy movies over the iPad mini but Britain is in the midst of a climatic crisis. Wind and rain, followed by wind and rain, followed by more wind and rain have resulted in widespread flooding and great swaths of the country plunged into blackouts. Add to this the fact of Christmas and you’ll understand why this is a problem so monumental that we need to get Parliament involved.

Or not.

Granted, not being able to cook your turkey on Christmas day, or having your vacation plans interrupted, or having to play solitaire/patience with a real deck of cards because the laptop is out of juice and you can’t recharge it is not a lot of fun, but from the way some people are complaining you’d think the EU just outlawed sausage rolls and forced UK brewers to triple the price of a pint.

I won’t go into specifics—just turn on any chat show if you want to hear details—but, after listening to Radio 4 while having a pint in the pub just now (yeah, those are the kind of pubs I go to) I am left wondering when WiFi became an essential commodity; it didn’t even exist a few years ago but apparently now it’s a God-given right that people will perish without.

Hard times 2013, but here's someone making the best of it.
C’mon folks, buck up! Take out those scented candles you have stashed in the back of your wardrobe, fire up the barbecue and, while the turkey is grilling out on the pavement/sidewalk, hunt up half a dozen mis-matched dice and play a game of Yatzee. And talk to each other! Remember when you used to do that all those years ago? You might find that you like it. And—worst case scenario—if you find out you would really rather not talk to each other, then you’ll appreciate your ipad that much more when the WiFi finally comes back on line.

And, above all, have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve.

Happy 2014
PS: To be serious for a moment, the recent weather has sucked hugely for a lot of people. If you are someone who was flooded out or had a tree fall on your home, I feel for you, and hope you get the help you need in a timely and efficient manner. But if you are one of the Radio 4 call-ins complaining about the wifi being down, get some perspective, really.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Next Up, Spring!

I like this time of year; winter as a whole (never high on my list of All Time Favorite Seasons) is not so nice, but the days surrounding the hibernal solstice and—not co-incidentally—Christmas always give me a nice, warm boost. I like it because I like twilight, that peaceful, reflective hour, as the world pauses, waiting for nightfall; and at this time of year, it is twilight all the time. Either that, or it’s dark.

When night squeezes the day into a brief period of grey light and long shadows, it feels as if you are always on the cusp of evening. Daytime never really gets the chance to take hold; darkness is always just out of sight, waiting to engulf you. But there is comfort in the dark, and the more bitter, the better.

In fact, the seam separating the year from “coming off of summer” to “heading toward summer” should be as bleak and dreary and cold and snowy as possible. What better way to ensconce oneself in the seasonal siege against the darkness? Nothing is more jolly than gathering with friends around the fire (or, in a pinch, just yourself with a re-run of A Christmas Carol* on the telly) wrapped in a comfy jumper with a steaming mug of mulled cider in your hand (and if it’s the American non-alcoholic variety of cider, make sure you pour a healthy dollop of rum into it) while apocalyptic weather rattles the window panes.

What could be more comforting than a friendly pub with a roaring fire?
This, of course, is the impetus behind the old Pagan winter festivals, and why Christmas was moved here (get over it) and why enough other major religions have festivals at this time of year to make us self-flagellate for inadvertently wishing someone a “Merry Christmas.” It’s simple human nature to want to gather together, light a fire for celebration and warmth, get good and drunk, eat ourselves sick and basically hold up two fingers (or, for you folks in the US, just the middle one will do) to the darkness.

I did a Google search for "warm jumper/sweater" and got this; the jumper
looks warm enough, but I think she's missing the point.

That's more like it!
So “Merry Christmas” everyone—or, if you don’t subscribe to the religious or capitalist motivations behind that particular holiday, Happy Solstice—may your mead cups overflow, your Yule logs burn brightly and your cakes, meats and treats leave you feeling as stuffed as a Burns Night haggis.

As for myself, it is currently just after noon as I write this, but it is murky and drizzly outside with a wind brisk enough to make up for the fact that we don’t have any actual snow or ice to complain about. It’s perfect weather for a trek to the pub, where the fire will be blazing and the festive lights twinkling.

And, if I’m particularly fortunate, they might have mulled cider on offer.

* The real one, with Alastair Sim as Scrooge, and make sure it’s in glorious Black and White, not that colorized bastardization. 
Bah! Humbug!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Business of Writing

I have just passed a significant milestone: at the very tail end of my 11th year of “taking my writing seriously” I have finally turned a profit.

This does not mean I have earned more than I spent in 2013 (although I did) but, even more significantly, it means I have earned, over the past 11 years, more money writing than I have spent on writing during that same period.

It was not an easy hill to climb. Although I always say that taking up the hobby of writing is a sweet deal because it is dead easy (all you have to do is write) and dirt cheap (a notebook from Poundland and you can always steal a pen from the bank), in actual practice it can be much different. If you are serious about writing, you’ll need a computer, and an Internet connection. Also, a website (ISPs aren’t free) is a good idea, as well as a printer, lots of paper and enough ink to print out your novel. Over and over again. Although these days you won’t have to splash out quite as much on postage (and return postage) you wouldn’t believe how long this antiquated means of transporting manuscripts held on.

So my early years were mostly about spending money while I earned zero income, which put me solidly in the hole—to the tune of nearly a thousand quid. Still, £250 or so a year on a hobby is not a lot; take up art if you don’t believe me.

In the final days of my fourth year I did some soul searching and was beginning to think I should give it up as a bad habit. I had read somewhere that if you are writing consistently and submitting on a routine basis and haven’t make any money after four years, you should admit you made a mistake and take up gardening. I was wondering if I should take this advice to heart when—in one of those real-life co-incidences that are so fortuitous that they would never stand up in fiction—I received, on New Year’s Eve of year number four, a check for $5.00 for an article I wrote for an on-line magazine.

Money was finally coming in; I was on my way.

Every year thereafter saw me earning something. Not as much as I spent, but at least now I had figures in the black column. The only year I earned more than I spent was year eight when, in a moment of weakness, I prostituted my website with an ad for an insurance company, but I felt so cheap and used that I took it down after two months. Still, that income made up for my losses that year, though my overall deficit remained well above my earnings.

Then I sold a book, or, more exactly, I placed a book with a publisher. There was no advance, and—after much editing and rewriting and reviewing—I found I was my own best customer. Outside of myself, sales were, to be kind, slim, and the cost of the books was exacerbated by the fact that I gave them away, and paid postage for the privilege.

I self-published two books after that and, thanks to the dearth of sales, went further into the red. But last year I managed to place a novel with another publisher and, because I didn’t have to pay for anything Kindle-related, I immediately began turning a profit; a small one, to be sure, but, ever so slowly, the numbers began creeping up.

Then, this past summer, something very odd happened: my books began to sell. Not a lot, but in numbers I was not ashamed to admit to in public. And, as I entered the last of 2013’s earning into my ledger just now, I see that my total earnings have finally topped—by a few pounds—the amount of money I have spent on this business of writing since I proposed to stop treating it like a hobby and more as a profession.

I’m not going to quit the day-job just yet (or, if I had a day-job, I wouldn’t quit it) but I can now wrap up this year satisfied that my writing “business” is now solvent.

Hopefully, 2014 will be just as kind, or kinder, to me.

And to all of you.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Next Book

When you’re a writer—especially one who has been (sort of) promoted to the position of full-time author—people tend to ask when your next book is coming out. It’s a fair question, and if you asked it of, say, Peter James [name-drop alert]—who lives just down the road in Henfield and who I have seen and chatted with on several occasions—[end name-drop alert] the answer is relatively straightforward, and you both know you are referring to his wildly popular Roy Grace books.

In my case, the answer is not so simple.

When someone says to me—in person or via e-mail or through my wife—“I really liked your book; when are you publishing your next one,” there is a high likelihood that they will come away disappointed because, whichever of my books they enjoyed, the next one is going to be nothing like it.

My first two books were collections of humorous essays, a sub-category traditionally regarded as “not commercially viable” but which is appreciated by people who like a book they can dip in and out of and re-read favorite bits from. But, alas, those are very likely to be the only such books I ever produce.

I followed that up with a humorous travelogue cum love story about how I met my wife. Had I been a well-known sports figure or reality TV star or even someone who had gained dubious fame for climbing up a water tower with a deer rifle (“He was a quiet guy, kept to himself, you never would have guessed…”) then I might have had publishers lining up around the block but, being an unknown and not having access to a deer rifle, I didn’t even attempt to find a publisher for that book; I simply published it myself. It was a personal project, just something I wanted to do and I never expected to sell many. That book, however, has become far and away my best seller. To my utter shock and surprise, complete strangers are reading my tale of ineptitude and budding romance and leaving embarrassingly glowing review about it and, occasionally, asking when I am going to write another.

Well, unless I can convince my wife to let me loose in Ireland for a couple of weeks to see if I can find another woman crazy enough to marry me (and then convince them both to become Mormons) I doubt there will be another book quite like it in the foreseeable future.

Then came my novel; the culmination of my life-long dream to become a published author, the start of my fiction career, the book a gratifying number of people have read and enjoyed and, yes, asked about a sequel.

I have mentioned before how the plot for that book was sparked by a business card, but I have no idea how it grew into a tale about a child prodigy turned world-class gymnast turned Miss Teen England turned Travel Agent slash vigilante superhero. When I glance through that book these days, it seems as if it belongs to someone else. I have no idea how I wrote it, I am not certain if I could do it again but I do know I don’t want to try.

Another writer might have welcomed this genre confusion as a liberating experience, but I am not that writer. I agonized over whether I should be writing humor or straight-up crime thrillers or even slink back to essays. The resulting angst culminated in a muddled outline for a second-rate crime novel that I didn’t have the heart to inflict upon the reading public.

So I wrote a children’s story.

This isn’t as out-of-the-blue as it sounds; the idea of writing a story for my grandchildren had been growing along with my first grandson from about the second trimester. Being stuck in plotting purgatory, I turned away from crime and wrote an adventure starring my two grandsons that featured a time-shifting cloak, medieval England, a dark forest and a dragon. It was good fun and I enjoyed the process immensely. Then I turned back to the recalcitrant novel.

But a funny thing kept happening. Even while trying to sew up the plot holes in my crime thriller, I kept thinking about the boys’ story and how they could have further adventures and how they might be linked together and before long I had outlined a seven-book series involving Arthurian legend, Queen Victoria’s daughter, Will-i-am Shakespeare, Druids, a small farm just outside of Horsham and the Battle of Britain.

I expect this will keep me busy for some time.

So, if you are waiting for my next book, I am afraid you are in for a disappointment, unless you like children’s literature.

Yeah, this is what the G-boys are getting from us for Christmas this year;
I can just hear it now, "But Granddad, we wanted an Xbox!"

Thursday, December 5, 2013

My Year of Living Languorously

One year ago this week, I became a man of leisure; since then, it has been an interesting ride.

As predicted, the idea that I was jobless didn’t sink in for a long time. I had already arranged to take two weeks off in December and, after the flurry of the holidays, we visited Bath, so it was February before my new life settled into anything resembling a routine.

Now this may have been a nice way to ease into retirement, but it also got me used to the notion of not doing much of anything and helped me to discover within myself a heretofore untapped talent for frittering away vast amounts of time. Rather than being “productive”—that vague yet respectable state I had always imagined myself in after my retirement—I rode my bike, took long walks, developed an interest in real ale, dabbled in watercolor and learned the joys of afternoon naps. It was wonderful.

But by summer’s end, I noticed something disturbing: I missed having a job.

I realize we all hate to work. Even if you don't love your job there is still nothing better than getting together with your work mates to have a beer-fueled moan about the morons in charge and how you could do it so much better. (Or, if you happen to be one of the morons in charge, getting together with your fellow morons-in-charge and having a moan about the incompetent people who work for you and how much easier your life would be if you didn’t have to put up with employees.)

In my case, I went from travelling to London, or spending the work-week in Devon, or trekking up to Nottingham to realizing—on Wednesday morning—that I had not left the flat since Monday afternoon when I had popped across the street to the Co-Op to get milk. My job had not been one of those high-powered positions with a sexy-sounding title like Senior Implementation Manager, Regional Quality Analyst or National Tactics Consultant (get your own sexy job title here), but my duties saw me—perhaps accidentally—accrue a residue amount of responsibility. One day, all was normal, with people contacting me for advice, assistance, assurance or to tear me a new asshole because I’d let something slip. Again. But then, the next day, no one wanted to know me. Whatever I did, whatever I knew, whatever skills I had acquired were all—like me—redundant.

It really is a strange sensation to get up in the morning knowing that you don’t have to do anything, not even take a shower and get dressed if you don’t want to, and to know that your days of being a slave to the alarm clock because you need to catch the school bus or get to your job on time—a condition that has been part of your daily routine since the age of five—is now over and not likely to return.

Liberating? Yes. Giddily intoxicating? Absolutely. Kinda sad? Yeah, that, too.

Trust me when I say I did NOT let this get me down, nor did I ever forget the unbelievably fortunate situation I found myself in. Still, when my old office contacted me and asked if I would like to work part time for them again, I signed the contract as quickly as I had signed my redundancy papers a year ago.

So, one year after “retiring,” I am back in gainful employment, in probably the best type of job I could think of: I get to work from home, set my own hours and, occasionally, travel to the office for meetings. All the old skills and knowledge are coming back, along with all the old problems (and just as the nightmares had begun to taper off), and it is unexpectedly pleasing to see all my former ex-colleagues again (the ones who were not made redundant after I left, that is).

The other good thing about this job is, it’s temporary. So just about the time I get to thinking how inconvenient it is to have someone owning a piece of my time, it will be over.

And maybe, when I retire next time, I will be able to discover that elusive state of productivity.

Obligatory Working-From-Home photo.
(Credit: nicked it off the web)