Monthly Archives: October 2011

Getting to Know You: Ben Hatch

I’d like to welcome author Ben Hatch to the blog today. As you’ll have seen, I recently read his book ‘Are We Nearly There Yet?’ and loved it, so it’s a real pleasure to have him chat to me today.

Your latest book ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ is a humorous account of you and your family on an 8000 mile trip around Britain.  Did it pan out the way you expected?

My wife Dinah’s a travel journalist and we heard about this job – writing a
guidebook about family friendly attractions in Britain. It sounded great, a doddle. We’d go to zoos for months, eat nobbly-bobblies at safari parks and castles. I imagined us boating on Lake Windermere, the kids visiting so many galleries and museums they’d end up chairman of the Arts Council or something. I realised it wasn’t going to be what I imagined when I lost the key to the roof-box containing my one-year-old son Charlie’s nappy changing stuff on the first day. We changed him on a bench outside Eastnor castle in the rain using nothing but a KFC Lemon-fresh wipes Dinah found at the bottom of her handbag.

Which events did you find most stressful and fun?

There was a nature wee in a field of live ordnance near Otterburn in the North-east. Nice sign there that read: “Warning: this may explode and kill you.” I spent two days in a renal ward at St James Hospital in Leeds after developing a
kidney stone that my wife misdiagnosed as trapped wind, as in, “Oh for God’s
sake stop moaning, Ben – just lie on your back and cycling in the air.” We wrote the car off in Wales, opened a car window in the tiger enclosure of Windsor safari park and the driving got so bad at point crossing the Pennines my daughter did the toddler equivalent of self-harming with razors. She drew all over her face and arms with black felt-tip pen. It was so stressful my wife and I even managed to have a massive argument about which type of owl was best –
tawny or barn.

We had the most  fun leaving places, singing along together in the car at the tops of our voices with the windows down as we pulled away. That used to give me goose-bumps. We always felt in these moments like we were the best family in the world. Maybe I’d have a clean shirt on my back, and there was always this optimism. Today was going to be the best day of the trip. Today we wouldn’t get lost. Today nobody was going to wet themselves, be frightened of Victorian wax mannequins and, for once, my wife might go a whole day without being led hyperventilating away from a tortoise enclosure. (She has a tortoise phobia).

You live in Brighton with your wife and two kids.  You’ve travelled to many destinations, why Brighton?

As a kid I spent every summer in Devon. Living in Brighton means I still get woken by seagulls and can smell the sea. Brighton’s also half crazy with its right on liberalism, which I love. You practically have to have an allergy to live here, for instance. It’s the law. I just about get by with a mild gluten intolerance. Anything less than that though and you’re forced to relocate to Worthing.

I understand you once lived in a windmill in Buckinghamshire…..?

Yeah, I got called Windy Miller in school . “Give us a wave, Windy.” “Where’s your blue smock and belted hat?” “Don’t forget to duck when the sails go round,
Windy.” One person used to pretend I lived in a lighthouse. They thought that
would massively annoy me like there’s some terrible kind of tall-abode rivalry
going on between windmill dwellers and residents of lighthouses. Actually there
is. Everyone who lives in a lighthouse is a tit.

How did you establish your writing career? 

I didn’t. I was working as a reporter on the Leicester Mercury when my mum died. I wanted to do something to make her proud of me. I took a year off to write a novel. I very serious about it. I became like a wild animal. I never went out. I just sat at the screen wearing out keyboards, typing. When I finished ‘The Lawnmower Celebrity’ my girlfriend sent it off to agents while I went off back-packing. I went backpacking assuming it’d get rejected. I wanted to be on a beach when I heard the bad news. The rejections piled in and I was in a bar in Thailand four month’s later, worried about what was going to happen next, when I heard an agent wanted me to sign. I landed a two book deal. It was great. My next novel was ‘The International Gooseberry’.

My dream was complete. So then I cocked it up. I completed my two book
deal then thought, I know I’ll write a book out of contract. That way nobody
will harry me. I’ll make it perfect, the greatest novel ever written. It took
seven years to write this novel. By the time I submitted it to the publisher
nobody knew who I was anymore. They’d all left. “Sorry, who are you? What book?”

Who do you think your ideal reader is for your travel work, and are they the same for your fiction?

My ideal reader likes cheese, enjoys cinema and puddings without a biscuit base.
I’ve no idea what my ideal reader is. Anyone who enjoys comic writing maybe.

What has been your most negative experience, whilst travelling?

I caught bronchiole pneumonia and spent 10 days in a remote Italian hospital on a drip. I didn’t speak any Italian. Nobody there spoke any English. I had a very limited Collins phrase book. To explain what I had the consultant pointed to the closest description he could find: Lung cancer. For several days I thought I was dying.

What is the most hazardous situation you have found yourself in, whilst
travelling?

I was almost murdered in Santa Monica whilst backpacking when I accidentally went back to the mansion of a rich psychopath. Well, I think that’s almost happened. What happened was this. I went a club and met three rich Americans. One of them claimed he was the heir to the Campbell Soup fortune. He wasn’t. But I was drunk at the time and impressed. I like soup. They brought me drinks and they invited me to this party. I discovered I was only the guest shortly before I stumbled across the video camera they’d set up in the garage on a tripod pointing to a dog rug. They tried to get me stoned and then tried to bait me into this garage. In the end I threw myself on the mercy of this tall Indian looking guy, who called me a cab when the psycho guy was in the bathroom. When the cab hooted he told me to run for it. I did. As I got into the cab two Dobermans leapt on the bonnet and slavered all over the windscreen. I should probably have reported it to the police.

What has been your most positive experience, whilst travelling?

Driving 500 miles from Mumbai to Goa in a jeep driven by a 15-year-old boy
shortly after September 11. It was my stag weekend and we’d miscalculated the
distance. It looked tiny on the map. We had to sleep in the jeep one night and took so long getting there by the time we arrived in Goa we had to drive straight back to meet our return flights. The boy driving called himself Mr Chocolate and had no driver’s license. He kept shouting Bin Laden at us. We retaliated by shouting Blair at him. He overtook on blind bends after exciting himself chewing betel nut. There was Hindi music playing so loud it almost burst your eardrums. I counted 15 emergency stops. We passed overturned buses, burnt out cars, police administering roadside beatings, women carrying more on their heads than you could get in a pick up truck, and we almost died 100 times. But it was the most incredible travel experience. I was there with my mates and my brother, the spectacular scenery changed every hour and it felt like anything could happen.

Do you or your family have any phobias that have to be faced while on
the road?

My son has a phobia for wax mannequins (particularly Victorian ones. He really hates the Victorians) that means he fastens himself to my leg like a shin pad every time he sees one in a museum.  My wife though, as I said before, has a very debilitating dread of tortoises and all things that look like tortoises including turtles. At risky attractions I’m required to rove ahead and check out enclosures. I then shepherd her past any offending creatures holding a brochure to her face on the side deemed the “tortoisey one”.

What are your main concerns when travelling with your children?

In caves complexes such as Wookey Hole I worry frequently that they will run off down some  narrow pitch black warren of passages and end up lost in the underground complex forever where they’ll  grow up blind and white skinned like glow worms.

Who was/is your greatest influence in writing, and why?

JD Salinger. I was 16, had never read a book that didn’t involve somebody getting shot or a character wearing a bustle, when my dad gave me ‘Catcher
in the Rye’. Wow, what a book! It made me realise there was something between Jane Austen and Robert Ludlum. I reread it every few years and it always seems as fresh as ever.

Thanks for speaking to me today, Ben. I loved the book.

Vic x

A story for Halloween – ‘The Four Horseman’ by Paul D. Brazill

I’m very happy to introduce this scary little tale for Halloween from Paul D Brazil. I hope you enjoy it.
Vic x
Walton picked up the gold amulet and closed his eyes. It began to get warm. Then hot.
The waves of memories washed over him like a Tsunami. It was just like being back in Dallas. The motorcade, like an uncoiled python, crept down the boulevard. Walton was on a grassy knoll, crouched over, a high powered rifle in his hands.
And then the splash of red. The screams melding with the sirens. Walton shook, as if he’d been electrocuted. He wrenched his eyes open and threw the amulet to the ground. Blisters appeared on the palms of his hands.
Mercury sat in the red leather armchair, peeling the hard-boiled egg with his long fingernails. It was a habit he’d picked up from from a film he’d seen. One of the many. The raincoat and the sunglasses he wore, for example, were his, well, homage, to Chow Yun Fat after a recent Hong Kong action film binge. The bleached blond hair was a nod to Tom Cruise in ‘Collateral’.
Immortality meant that Mercury’s habits needed to be chewed up and spat out with regularity. But this one, the egg peeling trick, had stayed for over a quarter of a century. It had been, he thought, a fairly realistic film although Lucifer had loathed it .
Walton picked up the bottle of Scotch and guzzled down a mouthful. Ten years of sobriety down the river. But then it wasn’t everyday you had a meeting with an angel of death.
He leaned against the wall and noticed that the blisters were fading.
‘Well, ‘ said Mercury, in his best Hugh Grant accent. ‘Did it make you feel nostalgic for the good old days?’
Walton shrugged but he knew that it had. He’d had a taste of the times when he had the power of life and death over people. The days when he’d felt most alive. Before the CIA had cleaned up it’s act and sent him off in exile. To Europe, of all places. France. Walton hated France. He hated its smell. Its sounds. Its food.
‘So, what’s the deal?’ he said.
Mercury popped the egg into his mouth and swallowed it whole. Walton held back the disgust as he watched it make it’s way down Mercury’s long thin throat. Mercury certainly didn’t look like Walton’s idea of an angel. Grey skin and shiny black eyes – like a taller version of one of those freaks that they kept in Roswell.
Mercury burped. The room smelled sour.
‘Well, Mr Walton,’ said Mercury.’ We, my employer and I, are recruiting. A small, select group of professional, ahem, liquidators. Rather like the Dirty Dozen except we’ve chosen four. Four of the best.’
‘And what’s the mission?’ said Walton, knocking back more booze.
‘Oh, there will be a series of missions,’ said Mercury, wiping his mouth with a silk handkerchief. ‘Commando attacks on high profile targets.’
‘And when will these missions begin?’
‘Oh, Mr Walton, isn’t it obvious?’
Walton shrugged his shoulders. ‘Beats the hell out of me.’
‘Two thousand and twelve, Mr Walton! Like in that Nicolas Cage film where no one smokes, even though it’s the end of the world? Have you seen it? Rather droll, actually’
‘You mean that’s true? All that Mayan Prophecy shit?’
‘Deary me, no, no, no! The Mayans didn’t have a clue. No, but Lucaf … er, my employer.. thought it would be a bit of a wheeze if we stirred up a bit of mischief around that time, feed people’s paranoia. Take out a few world leaders, that sort of thing. Not a bad idea, don’t you think?’
‘Well, you know, I’m flattered and all,’ said Walton ‘ But, in case you haven’t noticed I’m getting on a bit. I’m eighty seven this July. My joints ache and I get short of breath just bending over to tie my shoe laces.!!’
‘Ahh, but Mr Walton, in the next life you will be fit and health. Fighting fit! More powerful than you could imagine!’
‘The next life? What the hell are you up to?’ He automatically pulled out his Walter PPK and pointed it at Mercury.
Mercury smirked. ‘Oh, no not us, Mr Walton. A laundry van at the end of the month. Very messy, I’m afraid. But you will, however, be very drunk and you won’t feel a thing!’
‘Shit.’
‘Indeed. We just need you to sign a contract before you pass over. So that you’re not poached by the other side. They’re a sneaky bunch, to be sure.’ He waved a piece of paper in the air.
Walton sat down on the sofa. Dust floated up and hung in the air, caught by a shard of Autumn sunlight. He’d been living clean for a long time now. Clean. And safe. And bored. It didn’t take him long to decide.
‘Gimme the pen.’ said Walton.
‘Oh, terrific,’ said Mercury passing a black fountain pen to Walton’s trembling hand.
Walton signed and handed back the paper to Mercury who pocketed it in a flash before putting on his sunglasses.
‘Where are you off to now?’ said Walton, draining the bottle of whisky and thinking of how he was going to go on one hell of a bar crawl for the next month.
‘Ah, best not say but it’s as hot as hell where I’m going. Well almost.’
Mercury flapped his raincoat which transformed into black, leather wings. The wings flapped and beat twice and then he was gone in a ball of fire.
Walton sniffed. Fire and brimstone, he thought. He was looking forward to to starting smoking again.
(c) Paul D Brazill 2010.
Paul D. Brazill was born in England and lives in Poland. His work has appeared in a number of print and electronic magazines and anthologies. His story Guns of Brixton was included in the 2011 Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime. He is the creator of the Drunk On The Moon series and has recently released two short story collections, Brit Grit and 13 Shots Of Noir. His blog is YOU WOULD SAY THAT WOULDN’T YOU?

Derren Brown: ‘The Experiment’ and what it tells us about society.

Earlier this week, I settled down to watch the second in Derren Brown’s ‘social experiments’. This week, Darren attempted to update the experiments on deindividuisation conducted by Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram. In other words, how people feel a lack of personal responsibility when part of a crowd. Think back to the riots in the UK earlier this year, for example, and the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

Derren had a studio audience believe they were influencing the things that would happen to the unwitting mark, by pressing buttons marked A or B depending on a choice given to them by Derren. He asked them to place masks on before the show started.

It started with silly things like should he A) Get a free round of drinks or B) be accused of pinching a girl’s bottom. It ended up that the man had drinks spilt on him, got an ear bashing from a jealous boyfriend and got charged twice for a round of drinks. All fairly low-level stuff. However, it was ramped up with him being set up for shoplifting, being arrested and being told he was going to lose his job on Monday.

One thing I would say at this point, though, is that the percentage of the audience that voted for these choices did decrease. However, the majority ruled.

During this time, Derren Brown had a production assistant in the man’s house, going through his laundry basket, dvd collection and internet history. Things took a very sinister turn, however, when the production assistant went into the man’s bedroom. Random members of the audience started shouting things like “look in his bedside drawers!” Everyone knows that bedside drawers hold personal items so, to me, that was a major sign of disrespect. But, it got worse. After a bit more time, other members of the audience began encouraging him to trash the room, smash the TV and XBox.

To me, this showed a scary side of society. They had been acting as a group for less than an hour but people were showing a mob mentality, with some demonstrating a frightening lack of respect for a fellow human being. It also showed how one person comes up with an idea “Smash the TV!” and how others follow, shouting “Yeah” and laughing. What sheep.

The final decision that the audience were given to make was do we reward this guy and give him a cash prize or do we have him kidnapped? Guess what they chose. They were given a shock, though, when the man made a run from the gang trying to kidnap him and was knocked over. Obviously, it was a set-up but Derren Brown acted as though it was real, walking off stage looking shocked.

What I found interesting at this point was that most – if not all – of the audience removing their masks, thus individualizing themselves again and disassociating from the group that had potentially caused a man’s death.

This show was incredibly interesting and insightful. I think it told us a lot about how people act in a crowd. What I was intrigued with though was the decreasing numbers – I think that also demonstrates that a good percentage of people realised that their actions can impinge negatively on someone else.

I like to think that I would not be a sheep.

Vic x

Getting to know you: Fiona ‘McDroll’ Johnson

Today, I’m pleased to welcome another exciting new author, Fiona ‘McDroll’ Johnson. Here’s how our chat went…..

Why crime writing?

I’ve always wanted to write as far back as I can remember and over the years I’ve had various disastrous attempts that just didn’t work. My writing was boring, bland and twee. I had come to the conclusion that I just didn’t have what it takes.

Then I joined Twitter and quickly discovered that there were lots of writers around the world tweeting about their writing. They would discuss their difficulties, the characters they wrote about and the struggle to get published. Slowly I crept into this circle of talented people and as I have always been a rabid reader of crime fiction, I thought that if I couldn’t write then at least I could review and be a little help to those with talent struggling to get noticed.

Eventually some very kind people asked if I wrote. After the initial, ‘no, no, no,’ I decided to give the writing lark another go but this time try to write within the crime genre….and that’s all it took. My years of reading crime have somehow helped me understand how to write the type of story that people seem to get a lot of fun out of reading.

Who do you read?

I’ve really enjoyed reading ‘Smoke’ by Nigel Bird. The
story alternates between its two main characters, Jimmy and Carlos. Jimmy is
still at school, theoretically, but is one of those lads who has fallen through
the cracks in the system and is more likely to be seen pounding the streets of
his local community begging smokes or getting blitzed out of his head with his
mates. Carlos has a swanky new motorised wheelchair, top notch, and was Jimmy’s sister’s boyfriend before somebody tied him to a railway line and he lost an arm and a leg. After a long period of therapy he’s back on the local scene and hopes that Kylie will take him back and will allow him access to their young son. Problems start when Kylie declares that the child isn’t his………

I love Nigel’s gritty realism and I can see his characters when I walk down any
high street in the towns of Scotland.

Tell us about your short story collections.

My first collection of short stories, ‘Kick It’ has just been published and, my goodness, I certainly did get a kick from seeing my book up there for sale on Amazon. ‘Kick It’ is a collection of 5 short noir / crime stories with a little twist of Scottish humour thrown into the mix.

Three of the stories have my favourite character, DC Gemma Dixon, strutting her stuff around Glasgow. New to CID, Gemma has to learn very quickly to stand up for herself in male dominated environments where, as the newbie, she gets some of the roughest assignments on offer.

I love having fun with Gemma as she banters with her fellow officers, making sure that she asserts herself and doesn’t take any of their cheek.

My other two stories deal with our perceptions of people and I attempt to show how far off the mark we can be when we don’t take the time to dig a bit deeper into ‘hidden stories’; the secrets that people keep close to their chests as they go about their daily lives. So much can be going on beneath a person’s outward shell and I try to uncover some of these tales.

I hope you check out my first ever e-Book and please let me know what you think. http://amzn.to/zxk1ji

So, what’s next?

I’m hoping to move onto a serialization of a novella that I’ve been working on for some time.

Thanks again for talking to me today, Fiona. Good luck with the stories!

Vic x

More information emerges about Gaddafi’s death.

As Muammar Gaddafi’s body was finally buried in an undisclosed location in the Libyan desert, it has been reported he was sexually abused as he was dragged from the drain pipe in which he was hiding.

Channel 4 News tonight revealed on their website that video footage appears to suggest that Gaddafi was sodomised with a stick or knife.

It is a well-known fact that Gaddafi has ruled Libya through terror for decades. Since the war broke out in February this year, Gaddafi’s goons had struck fear into the hearts of any dissenters through intimidation and violence, particularly sexual violence. Take the case of Eman al-Obeidi who was beaten and gang-raped by Libyan troops. During her two-day captivity, Eman was urinated and defecated on while tied up and also raped by 15 men, some of whom recorded the attacks.

While brutally attacking her, Libyan troops told Eman to “Let the men from Eastern Libya come and see what we are doing to their women and how we treat them, how we rape them.” Unfortunately, there were many other women being held with Eman – this was not an isolated incident.

It was reported in the New York Times around the time of the assault on Eman that rape is seen as a crime against the honour of the woman or her family, not necessarily the individual.

In June, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for Gaddafi’s arrest for crimes against humanity. It is understood that Gaddafi had been buying Viagra-like drugs and authorising their use by soldiers for the purpose of raping women and instilling fear.

When he was dragged out of the drain, Gaddafi is reported to have asked “What have I ever done to you?” His audacity astounded me. How does he know what effect his actions have had over the years?

Although what Gaddafi allowed – and even encouraged – was appalling and inhumane, I personally don’t understand how people could do that to him. I understand that many people have been killed or terrorised because of him but I truly believe two wrongs don’t make a right. By sodomising him, the rebels who captured him have essentially made themselves as bad as the tyrant. They should have allowed justice to be served legally.

In my opinion, sodomising Gaddafi does not erase what he’s done, nor will it make his victims feel better.

Vic x

Review: ‘Are We Nearly There Yet?’ by Ben Hatch

Ever fancied upping sticks and travelling around the UK with your family while researching attractions for a travel book? I bet many of you have but one man who really did is Ben Hatch.

Ben and his wife Dinah were approaching forty with little work and money drying up and so decided, after a deal with an American publishing house, to pack their two kids into their Vauxhall Astra to travel the country hunting out child-friendly attractions as well as fun for the adults. Perhaps this was a naive idea considering they were taking two year-old Charlie and three year-old Phoebe.

As a twenty-something non-parent, I wondered how I would react to ‘Are We Nearly There Yet?’. Would it make me never want to procreate? I haven’t had a UK holiday since I was seven and I wondered what this book would have to offer me. After reading this book, there are plenty of places I’d like to visit and it definitely reinforced to me the joys (and tribulations) of parenting.

It is important to note that ‘Are We Nearly There Yet?’ is not their guidebook. That said, it does mention plenty of UK attractions. That’s more to give you an idea of the setting for the dramas that occur.

‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ catalogues a five-month trip that is heart-warming and funny. There’s drama as well as comedy and I frequently found myself laughing aloud at Hatch’s anecdotes. The book also chronicles Hatch’s father’s final few months of life – and Hatch’s feelings about this. There were plenty of tears as well as laughs. This book is a lovely tribute to his father, Sir David Hatch.

Whilst reading this book, I felt inspired to do something similar which is something I would never usually consider.

Even though Hatch doesn’t sugar-coat the realities of travelling with two small children, he does paint the picture of a happy family who, most of the time, adore each other. The kids are full of character and Ben and Dinah’s relationship is a wonderful inspiration. She’s scared of turtles, he’s a hypochondriac – what could go wrong? This book is a no-holds-barred account of parenthood, marriage and travelling.

It is one of the best books I have read in ages.

Vic x

Review: ‘The Accident’ by Linwood Barclay

Builder Glen Barber’s life has seen better times – between the recession hitting and a law suit for a fire, his business is under threat. But that’s just the beginning of his problems: his wife is killed in a drink-driving accident and looks to be the cause of the deaths of two other people. Glen not only has to deal with his loss but his anger towards his wife at leaving their eight-year old daughter without a mother. However, his friends also seem to be having their own problems, involving a gangster and a missing stash of money.

‘The Accident’ is yet another great thriller from Linwood Barclay. As readers have come to expect from Barclay, it’s complicated with an ever-increasing list of suspects. There’s crime after crime in this book and there are plenty of red herrings.

Although I wondered how likely it is for a builder to become a private investigator / all-action hero, one has to wonder what we’d do if our family was in jeopardy. Sometimes ordinary people are capable of extraordinary behaviour.

Barclay’s characters are very well-constructed, with an understanding that no-one is all good or all bad. ‘The Accident’ is another great read from Barclay.

Vic x

Order ‘The Accident’ in hardback here: http://amzn.to/pbo5SY

Order ‘The Accident’ in e-book here: http://amzn.to/p6uJwX