A(nother) Rambling: Majority Report

I haven’t gotten on my soapbox for a while now, so I thought it was about time I went on another rambling.


For the last seven weeks on the blog, I’ve been reviewing the shortlisted titles on the WHSmith Thumping Good Read award – that’s after I had the pleasure of reading over thirty books back in March to help choose the shortlist.


My reading style has never been the most commercial. The books that sell thousands of copies are crime, action or romance stories – they all have their merit, but they’re generally fast-paced crowd-pleasers.  There’s nothing wrong with them, this isn’t a blog about commercial vs non-commercial books – at least not in that sense.


The types of books I LOVE are those that slow it down and explore their characters. Their critics would say these are the books wherein nothing happens, and while that’s not exactly true, I can see their point. My favourite book – A Little Life – is well over seven hundred pages long and has plenty of plot – but a thriller writer might dispatch of those plot points in two hundred pages or so.


Like I say, this isn’t to pick holes in either genre – I love reading all books and all have their positive and negative points. The real reason I’m highlighting these differences is because I had never read so many commercially focused novels in such quick succession before and it really brought something home to me.


For Thumping Good Read, publishers were asked to submit their best books, the page-turners that readers just wouldn’t be able to put down. Those brilliant books that people who don’t read would want to read. It’s a prize for people that don’t want to read a hard-going tome like A Little Life – or this blog post, the way it’s going.


In those thirty plus books – and I’m not going to name names, they were all wonderful books, and dismissing any of them was extremely hard – I can count the number of gay characters on one hand.  The three that I stumbled across were – 1) a dead body 2) a cardboard cut-out best friend 3) closeted until page 223.


The number of ethnic minorities were fewer: One.




Ok, so that one’s slightly disingenuous. A majority of the time race wasn’t explicitly mentioned for many of the characters, but there were clues.


Perhaps I was reading them as white – projecting my own societal expectations and unconscious racism onto the fiction that the author had written.  It’s possible, but there was at least one occasion where I read a main character as black – only for, three quarters of the way through the book for the author to make a point of highlighting the character’s milky white skin.


If I could read that character as being from a BAME background, why couldn’t I have read others in the same way? It’s just as possible as me reading them as white, that they were written white.


Some of my favourite books of the last couple of years contain representatives from minorities – Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Sarah Winman’s Tin Man and the up-coming Take Nothing With You from Patrick Gale. These books exist – but they haven’t all broken into bestseller lists, and perhaps more tellingly, they’re not being submitted for a book prize that in its very mission statement is looking for commercial books.


Even as I write this, I can see that these books are skewed towards my own interests, mirror aspects of my own life. Perhaps the simple reason commercial books are mostly white and mostly straight is because most of the book-buying public is mostly white and mostly straight?


Representation is important. Recognising yourself in a character is a shortcut into understanding a novel – but so is learning about other people, other cultures, it’s how we learn about the world, develop our empathy.


With all this in mind where are the commercial novels serving these minorities? Why are we making it so hard for their voices to be heard?


Is it because publishing is full of straight white people, publishing straight white people for straight white people to read?


As someone on the inside of the business I can tell you this – while publishing is very white, it’s not very straight, so there must be something else at play.


Perhaps the state of the economy has led us as an industry to become risk-averse. We look at the bestseller lists, see what people are buying ask for more of it, then flood the market with it.


Customers are looking for good books, at the end of the day that’s all they really want, and I believe that most of them are grown-up and educated enough to be able to read and enjoy a book that doesn’t match their own demographic.


We – the publishing industry – are unconsciously discriminating (and I do think in many cases it is unconscious – we’re not horrible bigots) and so we need to start consciously changing the things that we can control.


From authors to agents, editors to publishers, retailers to reviewers we need to start championing the books we all love and not just dismiss them as ‘uncommercial’. We need to have more faith in readers.


It’s also worth noting – that of the four characters I identified above from the thirty plus books, three of them ended up on the Thumping Good Read shortlist. Even those that were thin cardboard cut-outs helped add a difference, a richness to the worlds they were introduced in, helped their books stand just above the others.


I know that I’m going to start mixing things up in the books and stories I write – even if all that means is I stop referring to girls with milky skin and blue-eyed boys…


The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

I’ve mentioned before a couple of books that first turned me back onto reading as an adult. One of them was The Time Traveler’s Wife, among the others was Labyrinth by Kate Mosse.


Since Labyrinth was released some thirteen years ago, Mosse has written several other books, including two follow-ups to her debut – Sepulchre and Citadel. While I liked Labyrinth – and still have a copy of it on my bookshelf – I didn’t ever go back and read anything else from her.  Something else always came up.


So when The Burning Chambers fell onto my desk a short while ago, I decided to give it a go.


Reader, I struggled. At least to begin with. It’s five hundred pages that explores the early days of the French civil war – the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Hugenots.


We see it through the eyes of a handful of characters – led by nineteen year old Minou who receives a strange letter one day, leading to a chain of events that finds her fleeing from Carcassone to Toulouse before onto Puivert


I persevered though, and I’m glad I did. The more we get to know Minou and her family the more human the story becomes, the more engaging.


The struggle I had at the beginning was that much of the story relied on the politics of religion – the trouble with that, though is that as someone who doesn’t give much of a toss about religion, I found it hard to care what either side got up to. They were all behaving like a bunch of prats.


I felt like we didn’t spend enough time getting to know the characters – and it wasn’t until Minou’s younger sister was put into peril that I really started to care what was happening.


At that point, when it became more about the human element, I raced through the last half of the book.


Would I recommend this book? It’s difficult to say, and it comes down to what I always say, if you like this sort of book, you’ll like this book. It’s well written, it delves into the events of that time with – I assume – some accuracy. And if it’s not accurate, it as least believable.


The test comes with would I read the second book in the trilogy? For me, that depends on how quickly it comes. If it’s released next year, then the characters will probably still be fresh enough in my mind to pay them a revisit. Now I’m engaged with them, the next book should be easier to get into.


If I have to wait a couple of years…? I’m not sure I’d have the patience.


The Burning Chambers is published in Hardback on 3rd May 2018 by Mantle

The York Realist by Peter Gill

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After posting last week’s review of The Eyre Affair, WordPress kindly pinged me a notification that I had just published my 200th blog post.


I’ve had a quick peek back and that breaks down as:


89 Books Reviews

82 Random Ramblings

24 Chapters of Memories of a Murder

2 Short Stories

1 Poem

And 1 Review of a stage show (Dawn French’s one-woman show, for those interested)


All of which presents me the perfect opportunity to go little off-piste and talk about something a bit different (AKA I’m reading a big book and struggling with it so there is no book review this week, but I’m distracting you with something new and shiny):


A review of a play!



My twitter chum @adejohnleader very kindly (go on, give him a follow) gave me tickets to see The York Realist at the Donmar Warehouse.


First off – let’s start with the Donmar. One of the reasons I lept at Ade’s offer was because I’d always wanted to go to the Donmar, and never previously had a chance.


The seats are arranged in a horseshoe shape around the stage. We we were sitting on one side of the ‘circle’ (more of a U) and that meant we saw he whole production from the side of the stage, looking down on it.


It was a unique experience, one that actually helped immerse you into what was going on. It made me feel less like an audience member and more of a voyeur. Bizarrely, it helped make the whole thing seem more real.


There were moments when George – the main character – would look over at our side of the stage while talking to someone in the other direction. His words were saying one thing, but his facial expressions another.


I was very aware that my friend who I’d spotted on the other side of the theatre couldn’t see what I could see, and may well have been interpreting things differently. I wondered what things he was seeing that were shaping the play for him. Were we both watching he same play, but having very different interpretations, simply because of our physical perspective?


Highly likely, we know that art of any kind is made in the emotional perspective of the viewer, but I’d never really considered physical perspective in other shows I’d been to.


Onto the play itself.


The York Realist is set in 1960’s Yorkshire and all takes place in the front room of George’s house. He’s a farm labourer, living with his mother, being set up with one of the local girls Doreen – but there is a secret, one bubbling under, one that everyone seems to know, but never mentions.


That secret is John and a love affair they share.


I’ll be honest John is the other reason I jumped at the chance to see this play. Or at least Jonathan Bailey was. I’ve had a bit of a crush on him for years, ever since I first saw him in dodgy Neil Morrissey BBC1 Sitcom Me and Mrs Jones. Said crush was only heightened after 2016’s glorious Crashing (Can we have another series, please?).


But, while he was good, the whole cast were, particularly ‘Barbara’ actress Lucy Black it was Ben Batt as George that captivated my attention the whole way through. He had a presence right from the moment he stepped onto the stage.


He was the enigmatic George, drawing us all in and making us understand his character with just looks and eye rolls. The writing – the play was written by Peter Gill – obviously helped, natural as it was, but he inhabited the role so much that the character still lingers clearly in my mind several days later.


The play explores the difference in cultures between the two men, John, the out and proud gay man, seemingly less confident in making a move, while, in one of the play’s funniest scenes, George grabs a pot of Vaseline from the kitchen and drags his partner upstairs.


Events conspire against them but the emotional crux of the play comes when George must make a decision. Stay in Yorkshire or move to London with John. Similarly, John is confronted with the possibility of just staying in Yorkshire with the man he loves, but in a community where they won’t be accepted.


The pull of home, our friends and family, what’s comfortable vs the new and exciting, vs a love that could go wrong seems to be the main conflict. Reader, myself and a random woman I was sitting next to were in tears.


But, as well as emotional, it was funny. Funny in a way that TV can’t be. Looks from one character to another, a subtle eye roll which on the screen wouldn’t translate that well, were suddenly hilarious in person.


The theatre reminds me of real life. It is funny, and it is emotional, and sometimes even the through the most mundane of activities – such as George eating his dinner – some of the most interesting parts of life happens.  It’s a trick that television hasn’t been able to achieve for some time. Maybe it used to, particularly in the early days of the soap operas, but our attention spans are too short now.


We have to have drama. Or comedy. We very rarely seem to get both, and when we do the drama has to be bigger and better, the comedy has to be more raucous or surreal. On TV a gag about a pot of Vaseline would come across as crude and offensive, on the stage it’s a moment of real life.


For me, 2018 is going to be the year of plays. I’m aiming to see one every month. I saw Lady Windermere’s Fan in January, plus a revisit of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in early Feb. I’m chalking The York Realist up as my March visit come early. It’s not the first play I’ve ever seen in the West End, but I have a feeling it will be the one that truly started my love for non-musical productions.


The York Realist is on at the Donmar until the 24th March with a special benefit performance on the 21st before transferring to the Sheffield Crucible until 7th April


(PS – I’ve nicked the image from the Donmar’s website – couldn’t find anyone to credit, but would gladly amend this blog were someone to let me know!)

A Short Story – Never Not Lonely

Jeremy had fallen in love.


This was nothing new, but this time someone had fallen in love with him back.


Two people in love. With each other. At the same time. Jeremy was not a religious man, but for the first time in his life he was starting to see evidence of a benevolent God. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t lonely.


At fifty-five years of age, he had given up on never not feeling lonely.


He was his parent’s second child, arriving ten years after his sister, Audrey. She hadn’t been particularly planned, but Jeremy was very much an accident of a couple in their late-forties who had emotionally checked out of their marriage many years before.


All of his parent’s friends were their age, therefore there weren’t really any kids to play with. Jeremy entertained himself, occasionally playing with his sister for as long as her teenage mind would tolerate him.


Any friends he made at school were uncomfortable with his parents and their house which seemed to be infested with damp, that he soon gave up inviting them round.


As a result, he had largely grown up alone. Grown up lonely.


In his older years, he’d made some limited friends, but his keenness always seemed to put them off, and planted him firmly in the acquaintance circle.


He’d had crushes on some of them as well and on his, neighbours, his colleagues, but none that had ever led to anything.


Not that he’d gone without.


He’d meet people in bars and get drunk with them. Wake up the next morning with them. He had once, by some fluke, found himself engaged to a young woman from the law firm in the same building as the accounting office where he worked.


He had been set up on the date by his colleagues, and somehow managed to not scare her off. Fiona, it seemed, was husband-hunting.


After three months of some casual dating, Fiona had suggested marriage. Jeremy had been remarkably inactive in the whole relationship, so he was rather confused and somehow felt more alone than ever. He had proposed anyway. This was, he had assumed, what love felt like.


It had, of course, been Jeremy’s own fault that his engagement to Fiona had not worked out.


Looking back on it years later, he knew of course that he wasn’t truly in love with her, but then she wasn’t either. He wondered if that had caused him to subconsciously find a way to sabotage their well-planned future.


He blamed what happened on his cowardice, on his inability to be honest, which, apart from an antique wedding ring and his grandmother’s jewellery were the only things he had ever inherited from his father.


Fiona on the other hand had blamed it on Jeremy sleeping with her brother when she had taken him home for Christmas, three months prior to their intended wedding day.


That had been over twenty years ago. Things with Fiona’s brother had – unsurprisingly – not worked out and now Jeremy couldn’t even remember his name.


Following Fiona and the unnamed brother, Jeremy had spent most of his life alone, with only a few short-lived liaisons to keep him going.


There had been one relationship he had thought would progress further, a dental hygienist named Claire who had spent close to three months waking up with him in his apartment a short walk away from Notting Hill.


Things had soured when he discovered she was only using him to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. A bodybuilder named Clive who just happened to live in the building next door. It had at least explained why she had always been so keen on taking romantic walks, just around the block.


That had been a particularly painful break-up – for Jeremy, at least – one that had led to him selling his flat in order to avoid the blissfully reconciled couple next door. Of course, in between buying it and selling it, the value of the flat had increased quite dramatically, so he’d banked the money and moved out of London to a cheaper but much more impressive penthouse flat.


It was only when the invoice arrived from the lawyers that his estate agent’s had used that Jeremy began to consider what happened with Claire and Clive as karma. The administrative assistant who had signed the letter was none other than his one-time-fiancée, Fiona.


The past five years had been sex free, woman-free, man-free, and subsequently trouble-free for Jeremy. At least that was the face he presented to the world. In truth, he was desperately lonely – not that he really knew any other way to feel.


He had all but settled to live out the rest of his life that way when he overheard a conversation between two colleagues in his work canteen.


They were talking about a local politician who had been arrested over the weekend after being caught in-flagrante in an alleyway behind a fish and chip shop on a local estate.


This wasn’t new news to Jeremy, he had of course read the details in the newspaper with much interest. Despite not having had any sex for some time, he rather enjoyed living vicariously through others.


Darren, the young intern who had only recently started working at the accounting firm was sitting at the table next to his, talking to a young woman whose name Jeremy did not know.


The intern was an attractive man – well, boy, really – but Jeremy had soon dismissed him for being too camp. It had never occurred to him, of course, that Darren might not be interested in him.


“The prostitute was a boy?” Jeremy had asked, overhearing some of the conversation.


“Well, man, legally, but yeah. Seventeen years old.” Darren replied, over-exaggerating his facial features as he did.


There had been no names mentioned in the reports Jeremy had read. “How do you know?” He asked.


“Well, I know him, don’t I?”


Jeremy asked a few more questions, carefully, without trying to appear too interested and learned that Darren didn’t really know him, but he did, at least, know of him. The young man – Patrick he called himself – used a dating app to advertise his services.


Jeremy knew of those apps, but he had never used them before. He had always assumed that it would be full of people his own age. It would never have occurred to him that young, attractive people, would be using them to find love. Or, in the case of Patrick, work.


That evening, having spent the rest of the day thinking about it, he made the decision to download one of them. He chose Grindr, the app that Darren had specifically shown him. It was designed solely for gay men.


Jeremy had never considered himself as gay, but when it came to casual sex, he had always preferred the company of men.


Love – he had always envisioned that between him and a woman. But sex? Sex was for men. Their bodies were harder, it was rougher, and although a sweeping generalisation, there were far fewer emotions.


He had long ago given up on love, and he thought he had on sex as well, but now, learning that young, attractive people might be interested in him, even if he did have to pay for it? He’d never been so turned on at work before.


On this particular occasion, Jeremy had not been able to stop thinking about Patrick, the young rent-boy that the MP – incidentally the same age as Jeremy – had been caught with. Since Darren had shown him Patrick’s profile and he had seen that soft face with the hard look in his eye, he was fascinated.


He might have to pay for it – but this young, gorgeous man would be willing to help him feel a little less lonely.


Jeremy experienced a stroke of luck that evening when he logged on. After thirty minutes or so of browsing, he found him. Patrick, seemingly undeterred by the events of the previous weekend, was subtly advertising his services.


It was three days before Jeremy plucked up the courage to say hello, but once he did, Patrick was warm and flirty. Erotically charged conversation flowed between them for the next few days before Patrick finally suggested they meet up.


That had been on the Thursday. On the Friday night, Jeremy left work and drove brazenly to the same estate where the MP had been caught with his pants down.


In person, Patrick looked slightly thinner than his photos, perhaps not quite so innocent, that hard look in his eye seeming to have taken over his entire face. They sat in a dark car park facing the local pub. Conversation was stilted, not like online and Patrick avoided making eye contact with him.


After a few aborted attempts to engage him in conversation, Jeremy gave up and just pushed his chair back and unzipped his fly. Patrick reached across and quietly set to work.


“I’m sorry.” Jeremy was saying less than a minute later. This time it was his turn to avoid eye contact as he pulled a crisp ten pound note from his jacket pocket.


He hesitated, then pulled out a second and passed both across to Patrick. He took the money eagerly and left Jeremy alone in the car without saying goodbye.


Their second meeting was a week later. Jeremy had expected never to see him again, but when he had next logged into the app, he’d found a message waiting for him.


They met in town during the afternoon on the following Thursday and they had driven a short way into the countryside. Here, they had transferred to the back seat of Jeremy’s jaguar, where Patrick’s hands explored a little more than they had the week prior. They had even kissed.


Jeremy supposed that Patrick was a little more comfortable away from the scene of his last arrest. This time he lasted five more minutes before finding himself apologising again.


The following night Patrick came to Jeremy’s apartment and the two of them had sex for the first time. When Jeremy awoke on Saturday morning, Patrick was gone, and so was the money that he had left on the side.


Jeremy’s and Patrick’s Friday nights together became a routine and a highlight of Jeremy’s week. The highlight.


Sometimes, they even talked before sex and Jeremy felt less lonely, but he would always wake alone each Saturday morning.


Until about three months later when something changed. Jeremy woke up on the Saturday morning and Patrick was still there, watching him sleep.


“You’re still here.” He said.


“Don’t worry,” Patrick laughed, “I’m just leaving.”


He pulled his lithe nude body from the older man’s bed – Jeremy watched in awe, this was the first time he’d seen it in natural light. He was like an Adonis. He pulled the covers tight to himself, suddenly aware of his own droopy middle-aged body.


He watched Patrick quickly slip on his jeans and t-shirt and head for the door. Jeremy leant over and picked up the notes from the bedside table. “You haven’t got your money.” He said.


“I know.” Patrick gave him a sweet smile, the first time Jeremy had seen a smile like that on his young lover, and then left.


Jeremy fell backwards into his pillow. He was fifty five years old, but it had finally happened. He wasn’t lonely anymore.



Jeremy’s older sister, Audrey, visited him on the first Saturday of every month.


“I would come more often,” she’d say to him, “but I’m so busy with the girls and all the charity work that I do.”


He knew that she saw her visits to him as part of that charity work. She pitied him.


For Jeremy, thought she was his only living relative, these visits were like torture. Her stories of her different adventures and everything her daughters were up to only served to remind him of how truly lonely he was.


He was sure that she knew this, and was only keeping in touch to ensure that her daughters received what would be a not inconsiderable inheritance. He had once explicitly told her that they were due to get everything in the hope she would leave him alone. Even grandma’s rings, he’d said, which he knew was a bone of contention. For some reason he had been the one to end up with the old woman’s jewellery.


His plan had not worked and she had continued to visit, once a month, on the first Saturday, like clockwork. She was, he supposed, keeping an eye on her investment.


One particular Saturday morning, a few weeks after Patrick had refused to take any money from Jeremy, the older man woke to sunshine streaming through a gap in the curtains. Patrick was asleep next to him, curled up on his side as he often was first thing in the morning.


Since that day, weeks before, when Jeremy had realised he was in love, the two of them had barely spent a day apart. Jeremy was happier than he had ever been and he had even resumed singing to himself in the mornings, a habit he had fallen out of years before.


Something about Patrick, his youthful body or his carefree spirit had awoken something in Jeremy. In the past, men had just been for sex, love, an emotion he’d always reserved for women, but his love for Patrick was more than emotion, it was like air itself. He was alive again.


Jeremy was singing his way through the only verse of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord that he knew as he walked from his bedroom to the kitchen. He faltered slightly when he saw a cup of tea, steaming away on the counter. Had Patrick already been awake? It seemd unlikely.


“It’s not long made, so it’ll still be hot.”


Jeremy turned in surprise to discover Audrey sitting on the couch. She was wearing the same old grey skirt that she always did, the only acknowledgment of colour the collar of a floral blouse poking over the frayed edges of her beige cardigan.


“Do your dressing gown up, please. I don’t want to see anything you have to offer.”


Jeremy tightened his gown, “How did you – “


“Spare key.” Audrey interrupted, as she often did. Jeremy hadn’t bothered to complete a thought in front of Audrey for the last thirty years. It didn’t matter, she would always do it for him. “You gave it to me for emergencies.”


“What’s the – “


“You didn’t answer the door, I thought there might be something wrong.


That fucking spare key, Jeremy thought, then added out loud: “So you rushed in here and made yourself a cup of tea?”


“Well, once I got in here I realised you had company.” Audrey motioned to the two wine glasses left out from the night before. “And don’t try and deny it, I can tell by the look in your eye.”


“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Jeremy sat opposite Audrey and sipped from his mug. He’d give her this, she made a good cup of tea. Not that he’d ever let her have the satisfaction of knowing it.


“So, is it a one-night stand or something serious?”


“Somewhere in between. Neither.”


Jeremy hadn’t told anyone about Patrick yet. He wasn’t ashamed, but he wanted to keep it their own private pleasure for now. He wasn’t stupid, he knew how people would reach to their thirty seven year age gap.


Audrey sighed. “Well, don’t let her take advantage of you, Jeremy. You’re not exactly what they call a catch. She’s likely only with you for one thing, and it’s not what’s underneath your dressing gown. I’ve seen it all before with Tim at work. He got himself one of those Thai brides off the internet and the prat only went and fell in love with her. Of course, she disappeared with the contents of his bank account after three months and did he ever see her again? Did he – “


For once, Audrey was the one who was unable to finish a thought. The cause of this abrupt stop was Patrick, in nothing but a pair of small pants, strolling through the room. He took a towel from the clothes horse set up in the kitchen.


“Don’t mind me,” he said, “just heading for a shower.”


Audrey simply stared at the may-as-well-be naked young man as he passed in front of her, flashed her a smile and disappeared into the bathroom.


“Jeremy, I…” she didn’t know what to say.


“Put your tongue away, Audrey, you’re not exactly his type.”




“Who is he?” Jeremy smirked, before sipping on his tea. He was quite enjoying this. “That’s just Patrick. The rent boy I’m seeing.”



Jeremy unlocked the door to his apartment and called out for Patrick.


“Sorry,’ Patrick said coming out of the kitchen with a glass of wine, “it seemed to be the quickest way to fill her in. I couldn’t see you getting a word in any time this side of Christmas.”


“You’re too young.” Jeremy said, coldly.


Patrick just gave a small resigned laugh. “I knew she’d get to you. My age has never bothered you before. Turned you on in fact.”


“I meant for the wine, not for me,” Jeremy laughed, taking the glass from Patrick, kissing him as he did.


Audrey had insisted that she and Jeremy leave the flat immediately, refusing to speak while “that boy is in the shower.” Jeremy, while appreciating the silence from his older sister, had always preferred an easy life, so had acquiesced.


Unfortunately, this proved a costly mistake, having had to spend most of the afternoon with his sister.


“You were gone a long time.” Patrick said pointing to the half empty bottle of wine on the coffee table.


“Audrey has a lot to say even when she’s got nothing to talk about. Imagine how much she had to get through. Her coffee kept going cold.”


“I’m guessing she wasn’t planning the wedding?”


Jeremy sat down in an armchair and pulled Patrick onto his lap. “Not exactly. Funeral, maybe. Don’t take it personally, though I think she’s been planning mine for a while.”


“You’re not leaving me then?”


Jeremy smiled and took a gulp of wine. “Of course not, it’s my flat!”


Patrick punched him playfully on the arm, causing Jeremy to yelp as he nearly spilt his drink. “What did she say?”


“Nothing important. Nothing that could make me change my mind about you.” He gave Patrick a tender kiss, and then offered him a sip of his wine. “Actually, that’s not true, she made me realise there’s something I want to give you”


Patrick smirked and ran his hands over the older man’s crotch. “I’m always ready for whatever you want to give me.”


“Not that,” Jeremy moved his hand away and pulled out a small key from his pocket, “Well, not just that. You’re always here any way, we might as well make it official. Move in.”


Patrick laughed, taking the key. “I already have. They’ve given my room to someone else at the bedsit. Literally ALL my stuff is here.”


“It is?” Jeremy looked around as if noticing for the first time the relatively few additions to his flat. “Well, now you can lock it away, can’t you?”


They kissed again. “Is this hers?”


“No, she’d never give that up. I got it cut on the way back. That’s not everything, though,” he started to swivel the simple silver band he had on his right hand, “I want you to have this.”


Patrick watched cautiously as Jeremy removed it , “Are you proposing?”


Jeremy rolled his eyes, but said nothing as he slipped the ring onto Patrick’s thumb, the rest of his fingers too slender.


“It’s a promise.” Jeremy said. “You have changed my life in such a short time. I never thought I would ever feel the way that I feel about you. All my life, I have fallen in and out of ‘love’ with all sorts of people, but now I can see, in comparison to what I feel for you, they were just childish crushes. I didn’t know it was even possible to feel this way.


“That’s what I told Audrey today. I told her I didn’t just love you, I was you. You are me. Without you, I am nothing, I have been nothing. It’s taken fifty five years, but I am alive. This ring is my promise to you. I’m not stupid. I know you don’t feel quite the same way, not yet at least, but I promise that you will. I promise that you will never have to sell yourself again. I promise that my home will be your home. I promise to love you. Always.”


They kissed, their tears mixing with each others.



Two days later, Jeremy returned home from work to find the door unlocked and the apartment, while not quite empty, certainly lacking a presence.


He didn’t notice that his laptop and stereo and TV were missing. He didn’t notice his collection of rare and signed books had been swept from their shelves. Nor did he notice that his grandmother’s jewellery had been taken from their box in the bottom of his wardrobe.


He did notice that Patrick was gone. He did notice the letter on the coffee table, written in Patrick’s own childish hand.



    I’m sorry. I can’t do this to you anymore. I don’t love you the way you want me to. I can’t keep taking advantage of you. You deserve to be loved.


P x


With the letter was the spare key, but not his father’s ring. Jeremy had been robbed, not just of his material possession, but of his love.


Of his life.



It was New Year’s Day and Audrey had finally resolved to go back to Jeremy’s flat. It has been six months since she had last visited, in that fateful week when she’d crossed the threshold three times.


The first time had been her regular monthly visit when she’d been astounded to discover her brother was cohabiting with a seventeen-year-old boy.


Her second visit had been on the Monday morning and had lasted much longer than the first. She knew that Jeremy would be at work and gone with the intention to get rid of the child who was taking advantage of her brother.


She’d let herself in and had been relieved to discover he was in the shower. That would make it much easier. By the time he’d come out she had gone through the bedroom and packed everything that she could reasonably assume was his. Anything with a twenty-eight inch waist, or marked with XS.


“Get dressed.” She’d said handing him a change of clothes.


“What are you doing here?” He’d asked, quickly pulling them on.


She’d handed him an envelope of cash – five thousand pounds – and explained that it was more than Jeremy had to offer, so he might as well take it and leave.


“I don’t – “


“Shut up while someone else is talking.” Audrey had spat at Patrick, thrusting the duffel bag she’d packed into his arms as she did. “Your mother didn’t do you many favours did she? Perhaps you should go back to her until you can learn to behave like a proper grown up?”


“She’d have a lot to say about the way you’re behaving right now.” He’d spat right back at her.


Audrey had been surprised. Did kids really talk to their elders this way? “Let me guess, she never raised a hand to you did she?”


She had reached into her own bag, and as she pulled it out, the young man in front of her flinched as if she was going to hit him. She’d laughed and handed him a notepad.


She’d told him to write a note to Jeremy, telling him he was leaving. To let him down gently. Patrick had ignored her and insisted that he loved her brother.


“Love? Love!” She had laughed the same way she’d laughed at her ex-husband when he had told her he loved his mistress. She hadn’t been much older than Patrick, and now, five years later, Frank was living on his own in a bedsit above a fish and chip shop.  “If you love him so much, you’ll agree with me and leave him now.”


“No.” The boy actually stamped his foot. “I’m going to spent the rest of my life with him.”


Audrey had laughed again and then found herself having to explain to him that her brother was nearly forty years older than him. “By time you’re thirty, when you should be thinking about settling down, he’ll be seventy, and looking for his retirement home!”


She had continued in this vein for some time, citing yet more examples of how the age gap would cause problems, slowly wearing Patrick down like a stream on a mountain.


“Like I said before,” she had said nearing the edge of her rehearsed monologue, secretly very pleased with how well she had delivered it, “you will leave him. It’s fun now but one day you won’t be able to cope anymore. If you love him, you’ll leave. Break his heart now… save shattering it later.”


Patrick said nothing more to her. Instead, he had sat down at the table and wrote a short note to Jeremy, then silently had picked up his bag and left, taking the envelope containing five thousand pounds with him.


Her third visit had been on the Friday of that same week. She had expected to hear from Jeremy, to hear of the break-up, but having heard nothing, she had grown concerned. What if Patrick had simply waited for her to leave and gone back in?


She’d visited on Friday night, when she knew Jeremy would be home from work.


That visit had been Audrey’s final visit to her brother’s flat. Finding Jeremy’s dead body had rather soured it for her.



There had been no note, other than Patrick’s, but the police hadn’t treated his death as suspicious.  There had been no reason for her to delay this so long, but it was while she was filling the fifth bin bag of clothes for the charity shop that Audrey had realised it hadn’t been this flat that she feared.


She had feared leaving her own home, of leaving and still feeling desperately lonely. Somehow, feeling it somewhere else, here, the bus had made it real.


Once everything had been cleared she went home and sat among her brother’s things. His TV and stereo. His rare and signed books. Their grandmother’s jewellery.


She waited.


Waited for her daughters to call. They had promised they would, after all. She waited, and while she did, she wondered where her father’s wedding ring had gone.


The End

A(nother) Rambling: A New String to My Bow

Taking a break from reviewing a book this week – to talk about my favourite topic outside of books.
I did something new yesterday, something a little bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately fun. It’s also what stopped me from reading, at least stopped me from reading anything new – hence no review.
(I do like the word hence. Makes me feel posh)
At WHSmith, we’ve been working on erasing stigma around mental health. The company has done shitloads (that’s the technical word) to raise awareness within the company, as well as this year doing huge amounts of fundraising for – along with Cancer Research – Mind.
As part of our activities, last year Bryony Gordon came to Swindon for a Q&A session – hosted by publicity goddess George Moore.
It went down so well, we arranged another one for Matt Haig – to coincide with the launch of his new book (How To Stop Time – read it!) and to get a male perspective on the challenges faced by those who suffer from poor mental health.
I know what you’re thinking – How come he’s not talking about himself yet?! Give the people what they want!
Ok, ok!
Well, guess what mug offered to step in and host the thing – with absolutely no prior experience of having done something like that?
You guessed it. This guy.
I spent the last week reminding myself of the events of How To Stop Time, I re-read Reasons to Stay Alive, and I monitored Matt’s tweets closely to see if they would raise any questions I wanted to ask.
Then. I got up on the stage, sat opposite Matt – and introduced us both to what felt like an enormous crowd, but was in reality closer to 30.
How to stop time indeed.
Matt had the hard job – he had to talk for twenty seven out of the thirty minutes – I just had to sit there and listen to him, and make sure I didn’t ask a question he’d just answered.
But boy was it hard – I didn’t know where to look. Did I look at the audience like a loon? Matt was (NOT like a loon, I hasten to add), but then he was talking to them. I would just be grinning inanely at them.
Should I instead just ignore them? But that felt rude, and besides if I didn’t look, how did I know if they were still awake – or even there?
At least I know why Graham Norton drinks now.
In the end, it went ok. Neither myself or Matt said anything stupid, I had some positive feedback from people afterwards (not that I believed them of course), and we all learnt a little bit more about mental health (and turtles) as well as hearing about a great book!
What’s the point of me telling you all this? I have a new skill! I can interview people – so let me tell you now, Graham had better watch out.
He’s ahead in the interviewer-skills race (for now) – but I can match him drink for drink.

A(nother) Review: Yesterday by Felicia Yap

“…all my troubles seemed so far away, now it looks as though they’re here to stay…”


The problem with naming anything after such a famous song is that you’re always going to associate it with that song.


It took me a while to read Yesterday simply because I kept bursting into song every time I picked it up.


But when I did pick it up I found a really intriguing set-up. Let’s see if I can explain in a few short sentences…


We are in an alternative universe, where everything is identical, except for one key difference: nobody can remember anything that happened more than two days ago. Around two thirds of the population can only remember the past twenty-four hours, while a special third can remember forty-eight – it’s a bit like the old adage ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind, the one eyed-man is King’.


Here’s the thing, though… while they might not be able to remember, they can learn. Each night they write down the events of their day and they are able to retain certain facts. Think of a photo of yourself as a baby, on a day out at the beach. You don’t remember being there, but the fact that you were is something you know.


It’s a tricky concept to get your head round, but in two paragraphs, I hope I have been to explain it.


In the book, it took seven chapters before it clicked into place for me. The writer doesn’t try to explain this world to the reader, it is simply presented as ‘this is the way it is’ and it’s very confusing.


For instance, the main character is a novelist. A successful novelist.


How on that earth could a novelist be successful. There are very few of us that can read a novel in two days – especially if we were to spend the evening writing an update in our diaries.


Once the concept is explained, perhaps a little too late for the casual reader, we are left with a novel – at heart, that now classic domestic noir genre – with a strong central mystery.


It rumbles along at a decent pace and where this novel is unique is that the characters are as oblivious, or nearly as oblivious to the true events as we are.


At a deeper level, it raises some intriguing questions about the nature of memory, about whether we truly are better off not knowing, or if full photographic memory is a better way to live our lives.


What it doesn’t do is explore the notion of how our memories make us. The characters all have distinct personalities, which suggests their behaviours are learned, routine, but it doesn’t investigate this at all.


Can a person still be a moral person if they do not remember their morals? Are they still funny if they have no memory of ever being that person? Can you and should you be held responsible for something you don’t remember?


What the book does do, is collapse under it’s own weight. It’s a tricky concept, and combining it with a convoluted, almost Sunset Beach style revenge plot means that there are many things not clear.


The writer herself seems to realise this, by including a chapter at the end of the novel wherein the antagonist gives a blow by blow account of what they did and how they did it.


It ties the novel up neatly and leaves no questions, but a good book shouldn’t have that much exposition. It’s a bit like when a comedian has to tell you why a joke is funny.


Yesterday has a shaky start, a strong middle, but a dodgy ending that leaves a bad taste. It is an ambitious novel with a smart concept, it’s just perhaps a little too ambitious.


Yesterday is published by Wildfire on 10th August 2017

A(nother) Rambling: Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit #GrippedByFear

Never judge a book by it’s cover.


I’ve probably started a blog post with that phrase before. Over the last couple of years, I feel I’ve covered every last literary cliché in the book (that there might have been the last one), but bear with me. After all, like books, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover.


Having said that, in my job you do have to judge a book by it’s cover, sometimes that’s all there’s time for. I personally get around 200 books pass across my desk a year that pique my interest. At the rate of one a week, I can only actually read a quarter of those.


I have to use something to tell them apart. Often, it is the recommendation of someone I trust, someone who knows my reading style.


Sometimes, it’s the cover.


In the case of Fear by Dirk Kurbjuweit, it was a little of both.


Posted by a colleague (who reads this blog and will get a kick out of seeing her name, therefore I won’t mention it… let’s just call her “Ginger Spice”), the back cover which simply promises ‘Become an accessory to murder’ – pulled me in, coupled with, what is a striking, unique cover.


Ginger Spice usually has the same taste in books as me, so I went with it and managed to get hold of a copy.


Sitting down to read it, and it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I was expecting a pacy thriller, maybe a psychological thriller that became commonplace after Girl on the Train was released.


At the very beginning we know that our ‘hero’ has assisted in the murder of his neighbour. His father shot him. We even know the motive.


This is something Ginger Spice pointed out to me – there seems to be no mystery, no reason to read on, and yet… we do. This book is compelling. The hashtag the publicists are using is #GrippedByFear


I agree with the first part, gripped. As we explore Randolph’s history with his father, his family… with Dieter, their downstairs neighbour. There’s something here pulling us on. Just what was it that finally pushed Randolph over the edge to contract his father to kill.


I’m not sure ‘Fear’ is the right word, though. The book is translated from German, and I can’t help but wonder if it was originally one of those German words that doesn’t have a direct English translation.


Sure, there is an element of fear that Randolph experiences, both as a young boy in the presence of his father, and for his young family. But it’s not something the reader experiences.


The bad guy is dead at the beginning of the book, there’s no fear that he will win, because we know that he doesn’t. Whatever he does do, it doesn’t lead to the total destruction of Randolph’s life.


So, what is the feeling the reader is left with?


That famous German word for which there’s no direct translation – Schadenfreude – the feeling of pleasure when some misfortune befalls someone else, it’s not that. But maybe it’s something similar?


Some kind of pre-schadenfreude. The anticipation of something bad happening to someone else? The idea that Dieter is going to earn his comeuppance that we’ve been promised in the opening pages.


As I said at the beginning, you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover – or it’s title, or even it’s hashtag – sometimes it delivers more than it promises. Having said that Fear is a better title than Pre-schadenfreude.


Fear will be published by Orion in January 2018 (Sorry – perk of the job… look out for it then, it will make a wonderful January read!)

Miles to Go

It’s been a busy few months.


Right back at the beginning of the summer my sister started giving me one-word prompts to encourage me to write more blog posts. I lasted a week before she gave me ‘milestones’ and I stalled.


Ironically, when I would have normally been writing a blog post, I was actually out on a training walk for my Three Peaks climb, literally passing milestones.


The reason I failed, though, wasn’t through lack of inspiration, it was just through being ridiculously busy, that all my blog writing fell by the wayside – apart from a quick book review a couple of weeks ago.


Throughout the whole time I was thinking on and off about the topic of milestones, part of my brain vaguely aware that I needed to write this post.


The way I see it, there are three types of milestones:


  1. Future milestones – These are the ones we all look forward to. Looking forward to the day that we get married; all the things we want to do before we’re thirty; getting that promotion at work.


  1. Unseen milestones – The ones that we weren’t expecting that we only notice when we look back on our lives. The first time that we met our best friend, that decision we made that shaped the course of the rest of our lives, the night out that turned into The. Best. Night. Ever. ™


  1. Historic milestones – The ones that everyone knew where they were. Kennedy’s assassination; Diana’s death; Rachel getting off the plane.


A lot of people focus on the first set, the future milestones. For me, these are the ones that mean the least. Nothing actually happens when we hit thirty, and those moments of your promotion or your wedding day – they’re merely the transition of one thing to another thing. The moment of change, not the moment of achievement.


The concept of a bucket list is something I used to subscribe to. I used to say before I’m thirty, I’m going to run the marathon. I’m going to go to Australia.


Until I realised that there’s one future milestone that’s going to happen to all of us, rending that bucket list pointless.


The bucket list is a list of things we all want to do before we die? Well, instead of sitting there writing your list, get out there and do them, because you might die tomorrow. That’s the philosophy I live by.


I’ve been to Australia, I’ve run the marathon. This year I went to Los Angeles and I climbed the Three Peaks. I even had a go on the Crystal Maze.


2016 has not been the greatest of years. It will likely go down in history as one of those years we all remember. 2016 will become the new 1997, the answer to every guess the year question in pub quizzes.


Bowie. Wood. Brexit. Trump. These are just some of the things that will make 2016 a historic milestone. We’ll all know what we were doing in 2016 – but maybe, just maybe we’re passing through some unseen milestones. There’s nothing we can do about the events that have already passed – but maybe we can turn them into something – anything – positive.


Maybe this is the year we hit rock bottom and humanity changes for the better. Maybe historians of the future will look back on 2016 as a turning point. Maybe they won’t.


But maybe you will. Maybe what you’re doing right now, is going to change your life. You never know.


The historic milestones are going to happen, our future milestones will be what they will be, but the unseen milestones, these are the moments we can shape ourselves, shape our futures.


Stop worrying about what’s going to happen when you hit thirty, or when you’re going to get married.


Go out there and make a milestone.


Me? I’m going to sit on my sofa and read a book. Like I said, it’s been a busy few months.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Half Blood Prince & The Deathly Hallows

I haven’t done much reading lately. I started reading a book while I was in Los Angeles in May and I wasn’t enjoying it.


After getting home, by the time I finally got around to starting to read again, it was three weeks later. I just wanted to read something that wasn’t going to test me, something that I knew I would enjoy.


So, I settled down to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Last summer I started re-reading the series, ready for my trip to see the stage-play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in October this year, and I have been periodically dipping into it since last June.


When I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I wrote that it was the book in the series that really opened up the wider wizarding world. I also spoke about how annoying Harry was as he started to go through puberty.


In Phoenix, Harry is still kind of annoying, but his anger here doesn’t feel out of place. He went through a lot during Goblet and so it feels completely justified. His arrogance is still present, particularly in his refusal to fully embrace the Occlumency levels, but equally Dumbledore is frustrating, in his absence, in his reluctance to share things with Harry.


The beginning of the book, as you might imagine following the events at the end of the previous book, is pretty bleak, and Rowling seems to know it. There’s a line about a third of the way through where Hermione is looking out of the window and says ‘here’s something that should cheer you up. Hagrid’s back’.


And though not my favourite character, my heart did lift at that moment. And I remember my heart lifting the first time I read it as well. Perhaps because of the absence of Dumbledore and the in-fighting between Harry, Hermione and Ron anything familiar is a welcoming sight.


Books 1 to 5 of the Harry Potter series are probably some of the books I am most familiar with. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows less so, mostly because I was eighteen and twenty respectfully when they came out. There was simply less opportunity for me to re-read the books when I became an ‘adult’.


So, reaching the end of Phoenix, I had to go into Prince and Hallows straight away to find out not what happened, but to remind myself how it happened. I read all three across the space of three weeks and it felt so good to be reading books that I enjoyed again, looking forward to picking up my book at the end of the day and not wanting to put it down.


I even woke up in the middle of the night worrying about Harry and Hermione while I was reading Deathly Hallows.


The last three books work so well together, like one huge book rather than just three big ones. They flow into each other well and Harry matures nicely into a character that you actually like, a great achievement for a character that comes close to being the worst character in the series during book four and five.


The last book neatly sews up pretty much every loose thread that had been left dangling from the previous six, even ones you didn’t know were loose. Every minor character gets a moment to shine, a shining example being Hermione saving Lavender Brown from Fenrir Greyback.


It’s a small moment, but the previous year, their relationship had been left frosty after Lavender went out with Ron, and Rowling doesn’t forget, she tidies it up, even with a small as interaction like that.


And yes… I cried at the end. It’s impossible not to.


For those wondering:


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix scores 4.1 out of 5 (same as Goblet of Fire)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince scores 4.5 out of 5

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows scores 4.6 out of 5


What lets Deathly Hallows down? It’s *not* quite as funny as the previous books, and if I’m completely honest the epilogue set nineteen years later… I could do without. Nearly ten years after first reading it, I feel slightly better about it as a precursor to The Cursed Child but it still feels like a bit of a mis-step to me.

Minority Report

I can’t stop thinking about what happened in Orlando over the weekend. It’s brought up a lot of different thoughts and issues for me. Where I thought I knew my mind, I’m now unsure. This is my attempt to reconcile those thoughts.


Pulse is a nightclub in Orlando, Florida. On Saturday night it was the location of the worst gun massacre in US history.


We’re not talking about Swindon or England or United Kingdom, we’re talking about the United States of America.


According to the Gun Violence Archive (http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting) this is the 136th mass shooting in the United States this year alone – that’s one every 29 hours.


On the 11th June the website reports that there were five mass shootings, a day later, there was just one. But it was the worst one they’d ever had. That’s why you’re hearing about it, that’s why it’s everywhere, because even somewhere like America, this was an exceptional event.


The shooter went into Pulse – self-styled as the hottest gay club in Orlando, and ranked second most popular according to the users of gaycities.com (http://orlando.gaycities.com/bars/) as of 13th June – and killed forty nine people, injuring many more. The death of the shooter himself takes the number of dead to a round 50.


Why did he do it?


Short of finding a signed confession, we may never be a hundred per cent certain for the reasons behind the massacre, the gunman himself has a violent history, as well as suspected links with IS. Islamic State themselves have already claimed responsibility, but there is no substantial evidence that they had any direct involvement.


We do know that his father has already confirmed that the gunman became “very angry” after recently seeing two men kissing.


If there are so many mass shootings in America, why is it this one that has upset me?


The reason I can’t stop thinking about it, is because it was aimed at me. At my friends. This wasn’t done for religious reasons, or race reasons, or even because of a relationship gone wrong.


This was beyond race, beyond religion – but not beyond love. It was love the gunman objected to. Love between men, love between women, and any variation thereof.


I’ve never felt like a minority before.


Minorities in the we talk about them are people who need protection, people who are vulnerable. I’m lucky enough to have grown up in a time and a place where I’ve never felt that.


I’m a white, English-speaking man, I’m by no means rich but nor do I struggle. I live in one of the most forward thinking countries of the world and I can criticise the people who lead my country without fear of retribution.


I’m also gay.


In the past, I’ve been critical of Gay Pride events in their current form. I’ve always said that I understood why Pride marches were needed, but that I felt they weren’t needed anymore.


Pride marches in the UK have become over-sexualised, commercial parties. When straight families are taking their children and grandchildren to Pride events, when music acts are queuing up to take part and when the event itself is part-funded by government of the day, I can’t help but feel we’ve achieved what we set out to achieve.


For me, the focus should shift away from standing apart and more to integration. Being gay doesn’t define me, it is just part of who I am. I don’t need a special bar or a special nightclub or a special march. I’m proud of who I am wherever I am, whatever day of the year.


I’ve never begrudged those who did. I’ve always understood their reasoning. A safe place to go up to a guy and ask him out, being able to be who we really are without having to worry – but the truth is, most of us feel ok to do that most of the time these days.


Until now.


Someone invaded one of those safe places and started slaughtering us. That could have been me. I’ve not been to Pulse in Orlando, but a couple of weeks ago I was enjoying drinks in gay bars in Los Angeles.


They’re 2,500 miles away from each other, they’re not exactly close (the distance between them is only marginally shorter than the distance between London and Syria) but the in LA are the same as they are in Florida.


Someone could have taken offence at me mincing through Beverly Hills and done exactly the same thing.


It could have been any of us.


The whole incident brings up lots of different issues and already has from gun control to, bizarrely, whether the UK should leave Europe (we shouldn’t, if anything this teaches us that a tolerant world with closer links to other cultures is more important than it ever was).


But for me, the issue is more personal… it goes to the heart of who I am. To who we are as a society.


We talked about what happened in Paris, we talked about what happened in Brussels. At the office today, no one talked about Orlando.


It’s not an attack on the United States or the Western world. It’s an attack on a community, on my community.


I’m not going to forget what happened in Pulse, Orlando, and I’m not going to let it scare me into hiding away. Short of breaking out into a show-stopping performance of ‘I Am Who I Am’ complete with John Barrowman-esque jazz hands, I’m going to be the gayest gay I can.


I’m not going to feel like a minority anymore.