Readings and Music

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Bone Lines by Stephanie Bretherton

I really enjoyed this book. On the face of it, I don't have much in common with the main narrator Eloise but in a way that's what drew me in. This character who is absorbed with her work and her self is in stark contrast to the secondary narrator, a prehistoric woman who treks across an arduous landscape with a small child, seeking safety and shelter. They are linked across the centuries as Eloise is tasked with assembling the woman's bones and establishing what she can about her life, which leads her to reflect on her own. Character is more important than plot here, but there are unexpected twists towards the end. The novel alternates between Eloise in the present and 'Sarah' in the past. I found myself drawn much more to the prehistoric woman's story than that of Eloise, much of which is both intrepid and moving. It's the first in a projected trilogy but stands very much on its own as a good piece of literary fiction from an innovative publisher.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Did you know...?

Did you know...?
1. 38 million soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing in World War One.
2. 19,240 British soldiers died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
3. In the Battle of Arras, there were 158,660 casualties.
4. In Messines Ridge, British miners detonated 900,000lbs of explosives in one go, destroying the German Front Line. It was so loud that it could be heard in London... apparently.
5. It only took two days for a letter to reach France from Britain. Roughly 12 million letters were delivered to the Front Line each week. With a war on. We can't seem to guarantee that kind of speed these days.
6. The youngest soldier to sign up was just 12 years old, named Sidney...
7. 9 out of 10 soldiers survived the trenches. Most of their lives consisted of routine and boredom, moving around the trench system constantly. There were shenanigans...
8. To combat the boredom, many soldiers kept pets in the trenches. These included pigeons, rabbits and, sometimes, stray dogs were glad to find homes with them...
9. If you're already a supporter of 'A Hundred Years to Arras', you can still top up your support by making a one-off or regular donation. Just click that option - an extra quid or a fiver here and there all helps us get closer to the target. With your patronage, I can get more updates out, release more extracts and get the book into the shops before next Remembrance Day.
10. Most of the above facts are rather pertinent to the story of 'A Hundred Years to Arras'...

Zero to Hero?

My journey as a writer began when I was very young. In the right circumstances, I was a sociable child, but I needed my own downtime, my time alone, which I spent drawing and writing stories. We didn’t have much in the way of telly, of course. We didn’t even have central heating until 1981, after we’d moved house to an MOD quarter in Chatham Dockyard in the biting, bitter winter of 1980. My Dad was in the MOD police, and wherever he was stationed every three years or so was somewhere that opened up new adventures to me. Being eleven years old and finding a hatch in the grounds of our house that led to an underground bunker was quite a discovery. The place had been barely used since the 1940s, was still equipped with a map of the dockyard on the wall and distinctively 1930s telephone in a meeting room that we discovered once we descended a good twenty feet or so underground. It was a long ladder. It was a little glimpse into the past, kept ready as a bolthole for the great and the good should nuclear war come calling. It was the 1980s.
Maybe my fascination with a human connection to war started then, I don’t know. We moved again when my Dad was posted to Devonport dockyard in Plymouth. This time, my parents bought a house, which wasn’t quite so adventurous. Plymouth, though, was where I had been born fourteen years before, when Dad was in the Royal Navy. He told me snatches over the years, but it wasn’t really until he passed that I found out any real details about his naval career. And it wasn’t until just before he died that I found out that we had a relative with another military connection. Dad’s mother had a sister who married a much older man, having met as servants on a farm in Suffolk. They had a son, named Robert Gooding Henson. By this time, I had stopped playing in air raid shelters and was married with a teenage daughter.
My father’s passing had an effect on all of us, but if anything, for me, it stoked a creative fire. I had already started tracing our family tree on my father’s side to find the link to the Henson family, and traced the Cobleys back to the 18th century. We all came from labouring or farming stock, my grandfather eventually ending up in the Welsh coal mines. My father’s generation was the first to take a different route, and mine was the first where anybody went to university. But it was Robert’s story that moved me. I took the sketchiest of details, combined it with the facts that we knew, and developed it into a work of fiction. The names are real, the events are real, and the rest has emotional truth.
I’m one of those people who has always lived in his head – probably too much. There’s always an internal narrator that is sometimes very unreliable, sometimes sad, sometimes manic, sometimes curious and sometimes very angry at the world. I’ve placed myself in what I imagine is the mind of Robert Gooding Henson, and it’s through this work of fiction that we are connected.
I had been published before intermittently as a comics writer, also having had a novel for children put out by a small publisher, but ‘AHundred Years to Arras’ is the ‘serious’ novel (I like to think it’s also quite funny) that I’ve spent my life preparing to write. It tells the story of Robert, his time fighting in France, and his connection to land and family through time and place. In my own small way, it’s a way to connect with my father too.
I had submitted the novel to many agents and publishers. Most agents didn’t reply at all; those that did were actually complimentary of my writing, so ironically those rejections encouraged me enough to try a submission to Unbound. I didn’t hold out much hope, as their standards are high, but I was soon offered a contract, and so here we are. The Unbound model gets the novel professionally edited, published and marketed just the same as if it were published by Penguin or Random House, available in all good bookshops as they say, but it’s dependent on me being able to prove there’s an audience by getting a certain number of supporters.
At time of writing, I’m 52% of the way there, and 159 of you have liked the project or me enough to place a pre-order for the book and / or pledge for some of the other rewards available. You have no idea how much I appreciate this support from friends old and new, family, acquaintances, work colleagues and complete strangers who have paid for the book in advance. I’ve never known so much support, and I’m working hard to make sure the novel is worth their trust.
We still need to make up that 48% though. The last few weeks have added a big round zero to that figure. Zero is a beautiful concept and a lovely shape, but I’d love it to transform into something else. The Ancient Egyptians used the idea of zero in their accounting, and it was related to their symbol nfr, which means ‘beautiful’. There’s a beauty in zero, in the concept of nothingness. However, the Ancient Greeks didn’t see it the same way. They had no symbol for zero and couldn’t accept that nothing could also be something. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps the next digit is just around the corner.
If you’ve been considering, I’d love it if you could become a supporter now and help us shatter that beautiful zero. If you’ve already supported, why not share it with someone who you think would be interested? You could even buy extra copies as presents for that friend or relative who would appreciate having their name listed in the back of the book, is interested in The Great War, or just enjoys good literary fiction. Do join me on that journey.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Happy New Year!

I suppose it’s traditional to do a review of the year. It’s not the end of the decade. That’s next year, trivia fans. 2019 was a year in which a big thing happened but also a lot toddled along. My wife has done brilliantly in her new job. My day job is teaching. Enough said. We are the footballs of the government. Some people do a big list of favourite media of the year, but I’m not sure that my memory is reliable enough to say for definite what came out when or even what I watched this year.
2019 was a year in which, nationally, we saw the worst of humanity but also the best. I don’t entirely despair, but it is dispiriting to see how the wrong lessons have been learned from the past by those in charge, and how closed many people seem to be to hearing uncomfortable facts or opposing opinions. Experience and expertise aren’t valued as much as gimmicks and slogans.
But 2019 was a great year for me creatively. For many years, I’ve wanted to get a novel published, collecting more knockbacks from publishers and agents than successes. Unbound accepted my manuscript for ‘A Hundred Years to Arras’, a novel loosely based on the experiences of my relative Robert Gooding Henson. It’s the story of working-class young men signing up to a war that they don’t understand, much of it inspired by real life accounts of life in the trenches and the events leading up to the Battle of Arras in 1917. It’s also a personal story, so it means so much to me that, as of the end of 2019, 158 people have pre-ordered the book. If you haven’t supported it yet, do feel free to investigate extracts at the Unbound website (link below).
The other big thing for me has been joining Radio Abbey in Kenilworth as a presenter of my own show. I play classic rock and progressive rock on Wednesday evenings 7pm until 9pm, followed by an hour or jazz and blues music. Joining this team of wonderful people who do this for arts and the community is an immense privilege and I love it. It’s helped me keep some sanity at difficult times and, I hope, provides some entertainment for anyone who wants to listen. It’s available online to listen live and on catch-up (see link below).
So, I’ll be beginning 2020 with a New Year’s Day radio show from 7pm. I’ll be also polishing off that novel and getting it out to supporters and into bookshops as soon as we can. My next issue of ‘Commando’ is called ‘Red Snow’ and it’s out in WH Smith and on subscription on 20th February. It’s set in near Stalingrad and it’s got wolves in it. That’s all I’m saying for now.
So, let me wish you all a Happy New Year full of kindness, creativity and honesty. Tune in to my show on 1st January at and, if you haven’t done, already, please consider supporting ‘A Hundred Years to Arras’.
Love, books and trumpets,

Friday, 27 September 2019

Leamington Comic Con 5th October - free poster by Ian Gibson!

Dear everyone - It's a last-minute thing but I have a table at Leamington Comic Con 2019 next Saturday 5th October! I will be taking pre-orders for A Hundred Years to Arras and I can exclusively reveal that, if you pledge on Saturday, you will receive from me this fantastic promotional poster by the amazing comics legend that is Ian Gibson ! Ian has kindly donated to the cause.
These posters won't be for sale and are purely a gift for pre-ordering the book. (If anyone who has already pre-ordered would like a poster, just send me a message - you won't lose out!) I'll also be selling some of my comics but the focus will be on the Arras book. Hope to see some of you there!
You can also pledge via the website and, if you message me with your details, I'll send you a poster!

Thursday, 26 September 2019

The novel is now at 35% and climbing on Unbound...

On the hundredth anniversary of The Battle of the Somme, my father and I had spoken on the phone. He had just spoken to his eldest sister who had casually mentioned Robert Gooding Henson. Neither Dad or I had known anything about him before, but suddenly this was a connection to the past and The Great War. I started researching Robert and his regiment’s movements at Arras. I discovered where he was. Knowing that I would be convalescing at home after surgery, I set about researching the Family Tree. And then, one August morning, the phone rang. My father had died.
This prompted my decision to in some way pay a sort of tribute to the past that the family all shared: on 22nd April 2017 exactly one hundred years after his death, I would stand at the graveside of Robert Gooding Henson.
North of Arras, barely signposted from the road under a railway bridge, was the cemetery at St Laurent Blangy. Down a rough track that led to a quarry in one direction and our destination in another, we found the Hervin Farm cemetery. No longer a pit of rutted mud and inescapable craters, the landscape undulated where it had been ravaged but otherwise had the peaceful mundanity of any other slice of twenty-first century countryside. We had already visited the Wellington tunnels, where so many had dug their way to the German frontline. On the memorial, the Fourth Infantry Division listed the Eleventh Brigade, which included the First Somerset Light Infantry.
At Hervin farm, the path curved down from the railway bridge that led to the embankment on which Robert was injured. We turned a corner and, just behind a row of houses, the neat square of the cemetery sat amongst the trees. Housing no more than fifty or sixty headstones in straight white rows, it was a tightly tended garden, a stone cross atop a plinth in the centre. On one side of the iron gate, the stone pillar had engraved these words: “The land on which this cemetery stands is the free gift of the French people for the perpetual resting place of those of the Allied armies who fell in the war of 1914 – 1918 and are honoured here”.
Private Robert Gooding Henson died on 22nd April 1917 at the age of twenty-four. He was entitled to the Inter Allied Victory Medal and the British War Medal, which his mother Lucy received with the small payment that was scant recompense for her loss. One simple phrase was inscribed on his headstone: “Peace, perfect peace”.
This novel is Robert’s story. It’s being published by Unbound, who need a certain number of pre-orders and pledges before they will go to print and make the book available to all booksellers. It would be wonderful if you could support the book and help me tell the story.