Smoke on the Ceiling

I was on the phone. And I was fighting a losing battle.

“The book about Pepper is in Germany,” I said.

“What did you say?” came the reply. “All I can hear is a guitar.”

I finally made myself understood. My wife looked up from the other side of the dining room table. “Are you auditioning for MI5, dear?”

“What?” Sometimes the woman talks in riddles.

“The book about Pepper is in Germany…”

“Yes, Amazon printed the paperbacks in Poland. They go to Germany and then they’re flown to the UK.”

“You still sounded like an apprentice James Bond. What was the reply to your password? Ze cheese sauce for my cauli – fleur eez in Normandie?”

I let her cheap sarcasm pass. “It’s a wonder I can make myself understood at all,” I said, gesturing at the ceiling. “You can’t win against Jimmy Page.”

“Who?”

“Jimmy Page. Lead guitar in Led Zeppelin. I thought you knew a lot about music.”

“It’s Deep Purple,” she said.

“What is?”

Smoke on the Water.”

I checked on Google. So it was.

We were eating breakfast. But humble pie was still on the menu. And those of you who’d tagged me under ‘old so probably a heavy metal fan’ will need to revise your filing systems…

Alex has been home from university for two months now. He arrived with the avowed intent of teaching himself the guitar. He’s been as good as his word and – like all beginner guitarists – has been playing Smoke on the Water remorselessly.

So far, so good. A basic guitar he found in Dan’s bedroom and he was making progress.

And then disaster struck. Josh went back to college.

“Hell’s teeth,” I said. “What’s that? It sounds like the Rolling Stones are warming up.”

There it was again. Coming straight through the dining room ceiling. The clear, unmistakable sounds of an electric guitar.

We rushed up to what had once been our son’s bedroom and was now a recording studio.

“What’s that?” I said, staring at an electric guitar.

Alex did his best not to use the is-it-time-for-your-medication expression my wife and daughter have perfected. He didn’t quite manage it this time…

“An electric guitar,” he said proudly.

“And what’s that black box on the floor?”

“An amp.”

“So Josh has gone back to college and left you those?”

He nodded. I searched noise cancelling headphones on Amazon. Meanwhile I tried to work with Smoke on the Water running endlessly through my head.

“I think we should have Josh’s head on a spike for this,” I muttered.

“Don’t be silly. However loud he is he’s still quieter than Eleanor. Don’t you remember when she was learning the trombone?”

Do I ever? Two terms of purgatory when the school somehow cajoled the Beloved Daughter into trombone lessons. Just when she was at her bolshie-teenager phase as well.

“That’s it, Eleanor. I’ve had enough. Go up to your bedroom and stay there.”

And thirty seconds later she was standing outside the lounge door ‘practising’ the trombone.

But relief was at hand. Two days later the Music Gods smiled on me. Smoke gave way to Sunshine of your Love. Yes! Eric Clapton! One small step for my son, a giant leap for music.

I may even get Layla before he goes back to Edinburgh.

And let’s keep things in perspective. It may be a distraction but it’s still preferable to his First Serious Girlfriend coming round to “help me with my revision.”

But nothing ventured…

I thought I’d try that line on my lovely wife. “Help me with my proof-reading.” You’ll be astonished to hear that after 27 years of marriage it didn’t work…

It’s Wasted on the Young

The window’s open. Cars are whizzing up and down the road outside.

‘Lockdown? Rings a bell, mate. Just remind me will you…’

But I can’t complain. Lockdown has been good to me.

I’ve been out walking every day. I’m fitter – I may even be one of the few people in the country who’s lost weight.

But there’s been a price to pay. Mostly by my knees. Goodness me coming downstairs first thing in the morning is a struggle. And then when I do get downstairs there’s ten minutes of stretching to tell my back it’s a new day.

“I’m done for,” I said to my lovely and ever sympathetic wife.

“What? Permanently?”

“Possibly.”

“That’s a nuisance,” she said. “It’s your turn to cook dinner.”

I reassured her that I might survive long enough to cook Parmesan Chicken. In return she treated me to her I-suppose-I’d-better-express-an-interest face. “What’s fallen off this time?”

She’s not a woman who’s impressed by lists. I merely indicated that sitting at a desk all day wasn’t doing me any good. “You know what they say. Sitting is the new smoking.”

“It’s hardly coal mining is it?”

“What?”

“Writing and editing, dear. Sitting on your bum and breaking off to make yet another coffee is not coal mining. Last time I checked you were wearing shorts and a t-shirt. It’s hardly full PPE.”

I grudgingly conceded she might have a point. And looked out of the window. Two teenagers went past on bikes. Two remarkably fit young people jogged by on the other side of the road.

They had what I need.

The problem is, I’m feeling a little bit mortal. My brother was my age when he died of cancer. Ten more years and that was the end of my dad.

I need to be young again.

I need this fantastic new invention. I spotted it when I was out every day in lockdown. Apparently it’s called ‘youth.’

Goodness only knows who invented it. People my age would pay an absolute fortune for it.

And yet – astonishingly – the inventors of youth give it away for free! And they give it away to people who don’t appreciate it. Who completely waste it. Who have not the slightest idea what to do with it.

Who use up their supply of youth on drinking and parties and nightclubs and everything that goes with them.

Fortunately I have a solution. It would cure the nation’s health woes at a stroke and – bluntly – it cannot be beyond the wit of modern technology to arrange it.

What we do is give millennials a taste of getting older. A week should do it. Bad back. Eye drops every night. Fired out of bed by an ageing bladder at two in the morning. ‘Don’t forget to take your tablets.’

A week of that and they’d appreciate this ‘youth’ thing they’ve been given.

That’s my plan for improving the health of the nation. Send millennials a postcard from their old age and they’d be far less likely to let themselves go. ‘Cheese? Red wine? You must be joking. Still remember when they gave me that grey haired bloke’s body. Nightmare week…’

I’ll send an e-mail to Matt Hancock. It’s not like he’s got anything pressing at the moment.

And – of course – while millennials are learning to tell the time by their bladder, I get a week of being young again.

Whoop!

‘Hangover? Rings a bell, mate. Just remind me will you?’

Think of all the exciting things I could do without worrying about my back. Putting my socks on. Emptying the dishwasher. And the other one.

Whatever it was. Just remind me will you…

The Twist or the Tango?

Well, I’ve done it. Given birth. Again. That’s baby no. 7 safely delivered.

Pepper, Tales of a Family Dog is now scampering around Amazon and available on the Kindle.

Given birth? For a man, it’s an exact analogy. You can’t back out, you know it’s going to hurt at times. And that final feeling of joy and relief…

Small wonder that someone said, ‘Writing a book is the closest a man can get to giving birth.’

Hmmm… A quick check. Google doesn’t attribute that quote to anyone. I think I might steal it and claim my place in posterity. I might even be a question in a pub quiz.

Anyway, Pepper’s done. I still miss her – I dropped a spoonful of Spag Bol on the kitchen floor this morning and turned round: then realised I’d have to pick it up myself – but at least she has her place in history.

At which point you might think it’s time to relax. Put the old feet up, especially as footie is back on TV…

Not a bit of it, as I patiently explained to my youngest son.

“You’re done now, Dad. Time for a break.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Because writing a book is one thing. Publicising it is quite another. And it’s more than half the battle.”

Sadly, it’s true. JK Rowling might be able to write ‘The End’ in the happy knowledge that she can leave it to the publisher’s publicity department.

I can’t.

“Because I’m the publicity department,” I told Alex.

“So you’ve written the book and now you have to sell it?”

“Yes.” And like all indie authors, my publicity department will do anything

…At which point, let me introduce you to my good friend, Phyllis.

Astonishingly – for one of my friends – I’ve actually met her.

Only once, but in these days of social distancing that’s enough. After all – depending on which sci-fi writer you believe – not that many more years and we’ll live our lives in one room, chained to a screen, sleeping in a pod and fed by the Just Eat drone tapping on the window.

Phyllis is a fine woman. A pillar of the community. The current crisis has swiftly divided us into good ’uns and bad ’uns and Phyllis is firmly on the side of the angels. She also has lots of friends. She may, for example, be a member of the WI. Women’s Institute, if you haven’t seen Calendar Girls.

Phyllis lives just north of Carlisle. The town’s bound to have a WI. Supposing they wanted me to talk about my books? Let’s imagine a hypothetical conversation…

We wondered if you’d come and talk to the Women’s Institute

Yes, yes, of course. When?

Next Tuesday morning?

No problem. I’ll leave now.

There’s just one thing…

What’s that?

Well, we think it might help to sell your books if you danced naked before you started speaking

At which point a writer with a new book out won’t even hesitate. Once the book’s published you become – I’m sorry, there’s no delicate way to put this – a cheap tart who’ll do anything for a sale.

Dance naked? It’s a simple, seven word answer.

No problem at all. Twist or tango?

I relayed this story to my loving and ever-supportive wife. The mental image was clearly too much for her. “Well,” she said. “At least they’d find a use for the sick bags now no-one’s flying any more.”

I’m about to deliver a witty response to this stinging barb when my phone starts ringing. I rush to answer it.

After all, it could be the Carlisle WI.

Now where did I put that spray-tan…

Pasta al Vomito

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. You fall into one of two camps. You’re a plotter – or a pantser.

You either plot it all out beforehand, or you fly by the seat of your pants.

Isn’t cooking just the same? You either plot it out – follow Delia’s recipe and do as you’re told – or you make it up as you go along.

If I’m writing, I’m a plotter. I don’t want to re-write Chapter 2 because I’ve reached Chapter 22 and realised that the shifty, ne’er-do-well nephew did it after all.

But when I’m in the kitchen – no, not with the candlestick or the lead piping – plotting goes out of the window.

Recipe? Who’s got time for that?

5g of chilli powder? Nah… That looks about right. Maybe a bit more.

Lightly simmer for ten minutes? Sorry, Delia, it looks done to me…

Sometimes this approach works.

Sometimes it doesn’t.

And sometimes it serves up Pasta with Cat Puke.

Let me explain. I stumbled across a recipe. Chorizo and Prawn Salad. The aforementioned Delia? Joe Wicks? Lean in 15? Yes, an easy assumption to make, given my toned physique and rippling six pack…

Nope, this was from the chef for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Who said I was desperate for news of football…

‘That looks nice,’ thinks I. ‘Could adapt it to go with pasta.’

So I do. Chorizo, prawns, a few spring onions, some cherry toms. We all think it tastes fine. “Maybe it needs a sauce,” my wife murmurs.

We all think it needs a sauce. “I’ll do it again in a few days,” I say confidently. “And I’ll make a sauce.”

Now at this stage a plotter would have done the sensible thing. Consulted Google. How to make a prawn sauce for pasta. Thirty million results. One of them might work…

But no, I’ve got my pants on.

Pants on, brains off.

‘Well, if I just fry off some of the prawns, chorizo etc first and then blitz them that’ll make a sauce…’

No, it didn’t. It did make a fine mess on my t-shirt as the hand-blitzer cheerfully sprayed tomato around the kitchen. But yep, eventually the ingredients were reduced to a liquid.

And now let’s talk about your cat. She throws up. You inspect the result. There are two possible trains of thought.

‘Hmmm… That looks pretty solid. I could pretend not to have noticed it.’

‘Oh crap, that’s going to soak into the carpet.’

The blitzer had produced option B. Prawns and tomatoes. Pale pink cat puke.

Maybe you could describe it as pink porridge. Which sounds worryingly like a euphemism for something found in the darkest depths of the dark web.

My wife and youngest son peered dubiously at their bowls.

“I’ve made a sauce,” I said helpfully.

They continued to stare into their bowls. “Try it then,” I said.

They did, with some reluctance.

“Transmogrification,” Beverley said.

“What’s that then?” I said smugly. “When Harry Potter turns someone into a cat?”

“Changing something into a different form,” she said, tapping it into Google and forcing me to have a slice of humble pie as a starter. “All you’ve done is ‘Chorizo and Prawns Two Ways.’ And one of the ways is vomit.”

“It’s a sauce,” I repeated.

“Dearest, it is not a sauce. Neither is it a reduction or an emulsion or a jus or any of those other up-your-own-arse words off MasterChef. It’s cat puke.”

She tapped away on her phone again. “There,” she said triumphantly. “I’ve given it an Italian name. Pasta al Vomito di Gatto.”

I hate that about my wife. Sitting on the fence. Never telling me what she really thinks…

Future Writing Plans

With the exception of 2017 – when Alex was doing his A-levels and the First Serious Girlfriend was on the scene – we’ve done a walk, followed by my book about the walk, every year since 2016.

This year we’d planned to go to Italy and walk the Via degli Dei from Bologna to Florence. Like so many ‘best laid plans’ made in early 2020, it fell victim to Coronavirus.

At the time of writing – May 2020 – it seems unlikely that we’ll do a walk this year. But we’ll certainly be lacing up our boots again next year. Italy is still on the agenda: then again, the people, the scenery and the history of Ireland may prove irresistible. Either way, there’ll be another Father/Son book out in 2021.

What is certain is that Salt in the Wounds will be out before the end of summer. And if you’d like to read the first few chapters just click this link.

Writing your first novel is a tricky business. In some ways you’re teaching yourself to write a novel as you go along. You can read as many books on plotting as you like, but – a bit like learning any new skill – you have to find a method that works for you.

The big debate between writers is the plotters vs. pantsers debate. ‘Plotters,’ as you might guess, like to plot the whole novel before they start. ‘Pantsers’ simply start writing and fly by the seat of their pants. For Salt in the Wounds I’ve probably been a 75% plotter.

There have been times when I’ve let the characters wander off and been quite surprised by what happens, but I’m increasingly finding myself in the plotting camp.

Salt in the Wounds will be the first in a six-book series so, as soon as it’s finished, I’ll be starting work on the second one. I’m also planning to write a short novella – of around 25,000 words – before Christmas, telling the story leading up to the death of Michael Brady’s wife.

Locked Down in Yoga Pants

As you know, I like a good rant from time to time.

When lockdown started it was EE. About 594 companies e-mailed to tell me how much they cared, but it was EE that sent me over the edge.

“Look at this. They’re putting the prices up. Using some special measure of inflation known only to them. And in order to ‘provide the best service’ they won’t answer my calls.”

My wife muttered something under her breath. It sounded like, ‘Can’t say I blame them.’ But obviously it couldn’t have been…

Eight weeks later and I’m off again. So what tipped me over the precipice this time?

“There’s not much to read in the paper,” my beloved said, putting down her iPad and picking up her gin.

“Pah! You can say that again. Every bloody article is the same. ‘How to work from home.’ ‘Mistakes to avoid when you’re working from home.’ ‘How to make a work from home space.’

A rant is like a stone rolling down a hill. There’s a split second when it can be stopped. But then it gathers momentum. All you can do is get out of the way…

Unfortunately for my wife she missed that split second. In the time it takes to sip your gin…

“I means seriously. Mistakes to make when you’re working from home. Forgetting to turn your internet on. People get paid to write this? Make sure your desk is large enough – well, once you’ve cleared away your children’s accumulated crap. Make sure your chair is comfy. No, mate, I thought I might be more productive on this foot square desk sitting on an iron chair suspended over an open fire. What about this – ”

“I’m trying to do some work,” Beverley said.

Saving the NHS? It was too late. The stone was rolling…

“ – This idiot? ‘How to make some work from home space.’ Well don’t have any children, pal, ’cos even when they’re gone every desk in the house is still covered in – ”

The pen hit me neatly and squarely in the middle of my forehead.

I blinked. “Are you trying to tell me something?”

“Yes,” my wife said. “Go away.” Or words to that effect…

I was back five minutes later. She’d stopped one stone. But it had clipped another on the way down…

“Look at this! Madness. Complete madness. ‘Best products for working from home.’ Ergonomic office chair. More than a thousand quid! My chair cost £54. Best laptop. MacBook Pro: thick end of three grand. Best Bluetooth speaker. Four hundred quid. Best weekly planner. Thirty-five quid. It’s a posh notebook for God’s sake. What’s the problem? Don’t they have Poundland in Notting Hill?”

My wife had run out of missiles. She was defenceless. A captive audience.

“Look! Look at this one. ‘Best work from home fitness equipment.’ Just in case you’ve got any cash left. Rowing machine. Another six hundred quid. Boxing gloves. Sixty quid.”

“Don’t tempt me…”

“What? Yoga mat. A hundred quid. Lie on the floor, you idiot. Oh…”

I’d spotted something else. Something which might… Well, you know.

“I could pay sixty-five quid for a pair of yoga pants,” I murmured seductively. “Not that we’d get much work done if I was strolling around in yoga pants…”

“You?” Beverley spluttered. “In yoga pants? With your stomach hanging over the top?”

She slid off her chair and onto the floor.

So much for the ‘A&E admissions slump’ during lockdown.

That’s well and truly over.

You can stop doing the crossword now, doctor. They’ve just brought a woman in. Paramedic says it’s the worst case he’s ever seen. Acute hysterics…