… and what about the girl?

If you read my last post, you will know a lot of the writing on my new novel has been done in the forest. Should it rain while I’m out walking, and that seems likely as the weather has changed for the worse, I can always shelter under one of the arches of the funicular (see above) to write.

I suspect the first extract from the draft of the new novel I posted a few days ago may have given the impression that it’s all about a young guy called Jake. Well it is, but there is also a girl called Isla and she doesn’t have a very high opinion of Jake after their first brief encounter. Here’s an extract from the beginning of chapter two. Remember this is a draft. Remember also that things aren’t always as they seem…

There is also a video of the author reading this extract: Isla and the boy she bit.

Isla cupped her hands under the fountain for the third time and swilled water round her mouth unable to rid herself of the taste. What if the boy had some dreadful disease? She’d bitten him, damn it! There’d been blood and he stank. Spitting the water onto the ground, she straddled the monoPod ready to ride off and pulled out her Tab. If she’d been a normal girl she’d have denounced the attack. The boy was frankly dangerous. She’d thought he was going to rape her.

Her heart pounded as she recalled how he’d flung himself on top of her. He’d been about her size, but he was much stronger. She’d felt his muscles. His chest. His arms. His legs. His weatherbeaten face had been so close. She could still feel his breath on her cheek. The whiff of mouldy cheese had almost made her gag. And the wild look in his eyes. Like a cornered beast. No. More lost and perplexed. As if he thirsted for an answer.

Isla ran her fingers over the screen of the Tab. It had been hidden in the saddlebags of the monoPod she’d stolen. She had immediately disarmed the location software of both the Pod and the Tab, but using the latter to notify the Trackers was still risky, if not plain stupid. They could trace the call and would want to know how she came to be alone in such a remote spot when she was supposed to be at school.

School? Reform school they called it. A pretty name for a prison for youngsters. A school where teacher was synonymous with warden and learning meant sweeping the floor or clearing away the cardboard Boxits each and every meal was delivered in. A place where brawls were commonplace and abuse, especially of girls and the young and weak, was the norm. In her short stay, she’d spent her time trying to go unnoticed. If they sent her back she’d be in trouble. Inmates didn’t appreciate kids who tried to escape. As if escaping insulted those left behind. She’d bear the brunt of years of pent-up anger. Especially with her being so different. Few could read or write, let alone programme screens. The authorities would surely have twigged she’d busted wide open their precious system. They’d never let her near a screen again.




The birth of a new novel

As I reached the end of the draft of my latest novel, Stories People Tell, I was concerned that no idea for a new book sprang to mind. Normally I have to put a brake on the new ideas that jostle to be heard as the current book nears completion. But this time nothing moved, even if I nudge and prodded it. What if my source of inspiration had dried up? A worrying thought I tried set aside. I was three-quarters through the first edit of Stories People Tell before an idea came for a possible novel and in unusual circumstances.

My hip had been playing up and rather than try to rest, I decided to start daily walks, hiking first four then eight kilometres early every morning. On the second day, as I neared the eight-kilometre mark I came across a clearing off the well-used track. Littered with moss-covered rocks and some felled trees, the place had a magic quiet to it that appealed to me. I sat on a rock (see photo below), pulled out my iPad and began writing a story that took shape in a very similar place to that one. Every day I paused to sit on that rock and write, except the one day in the month when it was raining.

It was not  immediately clear where the story was going but now I have written twelve chapters (of about one hundred to be written), the direction is becoming apparent. Unlike most of my other books, I have not immediately decided on a title. I just call it New Book. It will be my twelfth novel.

Here’s a short extract from the beginning of the opening chapter. Remember this is a draft and it will probably change before the book gets published.

To think he’d walked so close to the ruins on his foraging trips, never suspecting they were there. Jake glanced at the scattered slabs of stone covered with moss and rampant ivy. Despite its dilapidated state, the sacred ring was discernible amongst the trees, culminating in a majestic menhir that towered over the others.

There was an inner peace to the place, like an insistent silence that called to him. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and bowed his head. Easing onto a rock, he shrugged off his backpack. The miles of trekking were taking their toll. His legs ached. He stared at the sullen standing stone, undecided if it were welcoming or hostile. At least the site, nestled in a hallow in the ground that hid it from the main track, offered shelter to break his fast.

He pulled a slice of bread and a chunk of cheese from his bag. The bread was stale and the cheese dry. If only he had some pickles. The moment the thought crossed his mind, he berated himself. The priest would have called him twice cursed, for covetousness and gluttony. The sour-faced man was very free with his condemnations, especially when it came to Jake. All the same, he had to agree. Craving more in the circumstances really was a sin.

A tear trickled down Jake’s cheek at the memory of his mother sneaking into the castle kitchens. Begging her to cease filching food was pointless. How else was she to feed them? The pittance she earned as a kitchen help was far from enough. One day he’d walked in on her spreading ointment on wheals on her back. The sight of the swollen gashes had made him sick. Never had she complained of the whippings. She was lucky, she said, not to get beheaded like other thieves. He brushed the tears angrily from his face and returned the remaining lump of bread to his bag.

Jake was reaching for his water bottle when he froze. In the distance, approaching fast, a group of horses cantered along the main trail sending birds squawking into the air. The Baron’s men. No other group could be out in such numbers. Surely they couldn’t be looking for him so soon. He shouldered his bag and searched for a place to hide. They were bound to stick to the well-used trail, but better to play safe.

He was wrong. The first mounted man trotted between the stones just as he ducked behind the largest of them. The horses snorted when their riders pulled them to a halt. There was a telltale click of buckles and stirrups as the men dismounted. “He must be here,” a gruff voice said. It was the captain of the guard, a thin-faced, vicious blighter  called Jurgen who was the terror of the young in the castle, boasting as he did of eating little children for breakfast. Story or no story, the voice so close made his skin crawl. (…)





A foretaste of the Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust

The Guardian has just published a short teaser from Philip Pullman’s forthcoming book, La Belle Sauvage, the first of the Trilogy, The Book of Dust. In an interview posted by Random House Kids on YouTube  (see below), Pullman calls the new book a companion to the earlier trilogy, His Dark Materials. This first volume is to be published on October 19th, 2017 in print form, electronically, but also as an audiobook.

What appeals to me in this short extract, apart from the evident air of family with the earlier trilogy which I immensely enjoyed, is the unassuming language. No fancy frills. Just words in the service of a story.


Potter: the author and the actor

I stumbled on a very informative discussion between JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe about the Harry Potter films. I was fascinated by the relationship between the two which is very hard to classify. There is genuine concern and interest on the part of each of them for the other. Both are still immersed in the story and common memories, but they don’t make us feel like outsiders looking in. I appreciated the self confidence of Radcliffe, his articulateness, and his overflowing enthusiasm and the candour and relaxedness of JK Rowling.

‘Lies’ photos tell

The ‘lies’  photos tell…. Read more about it on Secret Paths Artworks.

The gender of clothes

17 year-old Alex published a photo of a t-shirt on Tumblr that proclaimed: Clothes have no gender (1). Underneath Alex wrote, anyone of any gender identity should be able to wear whatever they want without facing discrimination. The statement is not so much about whether clothes ‘have’ a gender or not, but rather whether you can pick and chose to suit your taste or your deeper feelings of identity without being discriminated against. In fact, the justified indignation of victims of social constraints, if not harassment, about the way they dress, is a confirmation of the important role of clothes in gender. Clothing conventions are often explicitly used to enforce gender compliance. If you were born in a girl’s body but feel you are a boy, then the girl’s clothes your mother or father insist you wear are a way of forcing you to comply to someone else’s idea of your gender. That said, the original t-shirted statement, as it stands, is misleading if not incorrect. If any objects still retain and dictate gender, it is clothes (2).

So what do I mean by gender? An integral part of the person’s identity, gender is an individual set of images, ideas and personal theories that go to make up how the person feels in relation to the male-female divide. Talking of divide is misleading, as it gives the impression of a positioning between two poles, but the personal edifice that is gender may be much less straight forward and more flexible. It necessarily relates to a wider social system (tacitly) agreed on between people and institutions which is anchored in language, behaviour and objects, above all clothes. This relationship between the individual gender and the social norms can be a source of great tension if not suffering. Such a vision of gender as constructed by the individual in relation to wider social conventions is a relatively recent development.

Clothes are markers of gender

Clothes are eminently impregnated with gender, even those that purport to be neuter. In a society largely built on a binary division: male/ female, clothes stand out as the major markers of ‘gender’. This is less so in the case of women who can more readily dress in men’s clothes without causing a stir. But in most Western societies men wearing skirts or dresses, not to mention bras and panties, are seen as weird if not dangerous and threatening. That clothes are vehicles of gender explains why people who crossdress, like Peter in my novels Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls, go to such lengths to wear feminine or masculine clothes when society would force them to do otherwise. Something of the ‘gender’ carried by the clothes wears off on them, a sort of metaphorical fairy dust, that contributes to form their own gender and identity.

The threat that individuals perceive in people not adhering to gender related norms in clothing probably partly stems from confusing sex, sexuality and gender. But the perceived threat ma y also comes from a profound fear of confusion and ambiguity which could well reflect back to deep-seated uncertainty or anxiety about one’s own gender identity. The inherent need to be explicit is anchored in language. Is it Mr. or Mrs. or Miss or Ms? Gender can be anchored in language differently depending on the language as I discovered when I tried to translate a small part of Boy & Girl into French. In English you can say ‘his skirt’ or ‘her skirt’ and it is clear in the first case that the boy has a skirt, causing raised eyebrows. Translated into French that becomes ‘sa jupe’ where the ‘sa’ says nothing of the sex (or gender) of the person whose skirt it is. More generally, most language is an either/or system when it comes to gender. There is no convenient alternative beyond ‘his’ or ‘her’.

Making a show of gender

The choice of clothing thus contributes to the construction of gender of an individual. However not all choices are visible or ostentatious. Not all choices are meant to be communicated to others. Even if the plain black panties a man is wearing under his trousers are identical to the underpants of a man, the fact that they were intended for a girl or a woman can be important in how he feels about himself.

For some people making a show is important. One of the apparent incongruities of many of those crossdressing males who post pictures of themselves on the internet is that they ostentatiously dress in what society sees as female attire, all lace and pastels and curves, yet, at the same time, exhibit their swollen maleness, clearly stimulated by dressing up. Naively one might imagine they proclaim that they are on both sides of the gender fence. In fact, I suspect this raises a different question, that of the relationship between clothes and sexuality, rather than gender.

I once saw a short YouTube video by a charming transgirl (3) who was quite the contrary to flamboyance and exhibitionism. Soberly dressed in a long-armed t-shirt with little makeup and her hair tied up in mini pigtails, she explained that for most boys who dressed as girls it was what they had between their legs that was most important for them, whereas, for her, and here she pointed a downward index finger to a place on her body off screen, she hated what she had between her legs. “I wanna get rid of it,” she said. Clearly for those people she was talking about, dressing up as a girl has more to do with sexual stimulation than gender.

The magical narrative

Many of the photos of ‘traps’ – a term used to signify men who dress as women such that they might be mistaken for women – posted on the internet have short stories attached. Here’s an example: My mom changed me into a twelve year old girl. I’m kinda scared cause I asked her to do my hair after I picked out this really cute outfit. I’m real excited, we’re goin shopping, I’m gettin some more pretty outfits and mom says it’s time for me to start wearing a bra! (4) The telling of the story combined with a picture, despite possibly having no link to real world events, are a powerful evocation of a wished-for reality. And often ‘power’ words are used like ‘twelve year old girl’, or ‘cute outfits’ or ‘wearing a bra’. These words bring ‘magic’ in the same way that clothes acting as totems also bring ‘magic’.

People post pictures of sexy, sometimes boyish girls on the Internet, add a caption saying it is a pretty boy or tell a story about how his mum or sister dressed him up, and, rather like a metaphor, the juxtaposition of the two produces something quite different, something they see as exciting, something that opens new vistas, at least for them.

The divided soul

When an object, like clothing, takes on a key role in sexual gratification the unfortunate technical term used is fetishism. I say ‘unfortunate’, because it is difficult to use the word without conjuring up related negative social judgements that tend to cloud any discussion of the subject. The word fetish has however another more archaic meaning: the worship of an inanimate object supposed to have magical powers or to be inhabited by a spirit. It is possible to relate these two meanings in an attempt to understand the phenomenon of fetishism. Let me take a round about route to explain.

The Harry Potter books popularised the notion of hallows. That’s to say, the embedding of part of one’s soul in an object in order to protect it and oneself. That was how Lord Voldemort was able to avoid death by splitting his soul into seven parts and placing those in different objects and people. Yet the very act of doing so both weakened him and made him more vulnerable. What if the inordinate desire for an inanimate object were a similar phenomenon? What if unknowingly those men who dress in female clothes give the power to the female clothes, for example, to excite them, and in doing so, give away a part of their ‘soul’.

A distinction made by the transgirl mentioned above is pertinent here. “Crossdressing gay men buy girls’ clothes, whereas trans girls (like herself) wear them.” If I can amend that slightly, many crossdressers wear female clothes because of the magic and excitement of being transformed, whereas transgirls wear girls’ clothes because that is what girls wear.

See my two novels about the adventures of a boy who dressed as a girl in secret and see how he fares in a world hostile to any ambiguity about gender or sexuality: Boy & Girl and In Search of Lost Girls.


(1) Address no longer available. Used to be at: http://managedmarauders.tumblr.com/post/123214176406/my-tshirt-because-anyone-of-any-gender-identity

(2) Ivan Illich wrote a thought-provoking but difficult book about the gender of objects amongst other things under the title: Gender (first published in 1982)

(3) It was quite a while ago and regretfully I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube.

(4) Page no longer available. Used to be at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/510032726527392107/

When real-life settings meet fiction

One of my delights in writing Stories People Tell has been discovering how I can embed real-life places in my story and how that juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary adds power and presence to the story. Within the limits of my knowledge of the places used, I have tried to respect the confines of the contexts chosen. In addition, I found it important to select an overarching setting for the whole story which dictated the places I could use and the possible trajectories between them and which gave additional coherence to the novel.

Some caution is required, however, to make sure the depiction of such settings does not mask the story. Places, especially those that are well-known, have a power and a story of their own. If you let them come too much to the forefront they will take over and hijack your story.

Below is a short extract, depicting a visit to a psychiatric hospital. I doubt you can identify the original setting, but I have used its presence to heighten the narration.

The car swung through the wrought iron gates into the park, where a large sign announced the name and nature of the institution. The former was concealed by foliage, while the latter was plain to see, Psychiatric Hospital. The words filled Annie with panic as all her doubts came rushing back. So Alice had made up her mind that she was crazy and intended to have her locked up. In a horrible way, it all made sense. No wonder she hadn’t wanted to say where they were going.

As they wound their way under a dense canopy of trees, Annie could feel mounting resignation numb her whole being. She glanced longingly out the back window at the world beyond the gates. She was partly reassured to see that the gates did not snap shut behind them. Reaching the end of the drive, they emerged from the wood in front of a large mansion surrounded by a grassy expanse that extended as far as the eye could see. Alice parked the car at the foot of the steps to the main entrance and turned to face Annie.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I have very much enjoyed reading/listening to Neil Gaiman’s novels, including Neverwhere and The Graveyard Book. The audio version of the former being  a real gem thanks to the work of Dirk Maggs on the sound (he worked on Douglas Adams radio version of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy). But my favourite so far is The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Why? Because i find the story particularly touching. I am intrigued to hear Gaiman’s rendering of Norse Mythology in his newly published book of the same name. In a recent radio interview he spoke of adapting the legends and the fine line between respecting the original material and ‘filling in the gaps’ in a modern version. From the interview it was clear he has long had a passion for these legends and is vocal about how they have influenced his writing. The audio version of his Norse Mythology is narrated by the author himself.

Anne Bishop – Etched in Bone

For fans of fantasy writer, Anne Bishop, a new novel, Etched in Bone, in The Others series is due out on March 9th 2017. The Others novels, of which this will be the fifth, confirm the authors ability to fascinate readers with strange but engaging characters in disturbing yet surprisingly likeable worlds.

Climactic finish to Stories People Tell

I have just finished the first draft of my eleventh novel, The Stories People Tell. A hundred and twenty four thousand words written in two and a half months. Details of all my novels can be found here.

Right up to the very last chapter (the one hundredth), I had no idea how the story would finish. Amongst other things, I was surprised to discover that the climatic end was a joyous celebration of the city of London and the wide diversity of the people living there.

The Stories People Tell relates the tale of Annie, an unknown seventeen year-old schoolgirl , who gets caught up in a grass-roots gay women’s movement in their opposition to Nolan Kard, current Lord Mayor of London. A rich entrepreneur, turned politician, he is campaigning to ‘Keep London Straight’. His off-hand attitude, his tasteless humour and his widespread influence, especially within the police, are undermining the country’s longstanding institutions. Annie, who is normally shy and retiring, discovers she has far more talent than she imagined. Despite herself, she becomes the figurehead of the ‘London Whatever’ movement that rocks London and its certitudes, but in so doing, she becomes the number one target for Kard and his rogue police, not to mention his sinister gang of ghost writers

Flags fluttered in the breeze over the hotel entrance as they reached Charing Cross Station. People were leaning out the many windows to catch a first glimpse of the march, whistling and cheering as the head of the cortege swept into view. The station forecourt was packed with people none of whom seemed in any hurry to catch a train. They erupted in cheers and clapping as the first of the marchers drew level with the station.

Annie halted the march and grasped the microphone Bertie handed her. She took several steps beyond the column of people, Xenia, her faithful bodyguard, at her side. Kevin, her girlfriend, on the other. The crowd hushed. “Thank you,” she said, her amplified voice echoing back from the façade of the station and away down the Strand over the heads of the marchers. “Thank you all for such a warm welcome. It touches us deeply. We, the women, men and children of London, march to put an end to violence. The violence of words, of acts, of fists, of firearms and bombs. We oppose violence not with ever more violence, but with everyday acts of kindness, with concern for those who are poor, rejected and in ill health. It is not easy. But that is our goal. If that goal appeals to you, join us now. We are on our way to St. James’s Park where there will be speeches, but also music and dancing. You are all welcome.”

She paused a moment, the fist of her right hand cradled in the fingers of her left. “We raise our fists in salute, it is not a threat but a sign of solidarity. In those fingers held tight we embrace everyone however different they may be. Gay. Trans. Straight. Black. Yellow. White. All sorts. All colours of the rainbow. All are welcome in our London.” She raised her fist in the air. Behind her, the marchers as one saluted in their turn and with it a roar went up that rippled back down The Strand. Then hesitatingly people in the station forecourt and at the windows above, raised their fists, till a sea of raised fists greeted her.

Annie nodded as a token of recognition and returned to the march, her arm slung around Kevin’s shoulders, her heart beating fast with the emotion of the moment. Bertie raised her arm and gave the signal for them to set off towards Trafalgar Square.