Author Archives: admin

About admin

Thanks for your interest in my writing. I’ve been at it for 40 years now and revel in crafting stories that are infused with my experiences and thinking. Do comment on any aspect of my writing – ask questions – criticise. I’ll keep all non-offensive and non-plot-spoiling content up on this site. Alex

Toys us are

We are the playroom toys
of gods that will not fight
we are set up by boys
of transcendental might.

Our purpose is to serve
to strike the enemy
give them what they deserve
so blind they cannot see.         

The other figures stand
for other little men
a homicidal band
who ask not why but when.

We must not back away
we must defend our god,
so we stand fast and pray
a brave and faithful squad.

They line us up in rows,
they form us into squares,
then knock us down with blows
cause carnage without cares.

When we flinch at the bombs
they whisper in our ears,
“You are my special ones
and victory is near.”

Make heavy chains

First they pretend there is no Beast at all
that learning from a list will stop your fall
into a den of thieves and vagabonds
who skipped the classes teaching rights from wrongs.

Then priests profess The Beast will lead astray
those too weak to resist its call to play
with horn of sin that sounds above the lord’s
infecting the pure thoughts of praying hordes.

History’s next to claim to know The Beast
a creature drawn to drink warm blood and feast
when gangs of men in white fleece uniforms
are sprayed with stripes then led to kill in swarms.

Let’s not forget the scientists of race 
whose only source of wisdom is the face
who see the brooding Beast beneath strange skin
that doesn’t match the mirror they look in.

But these portrayals of The Beast are lies
attempts to blame the rot upon the flies
attempts to blame the wound upon the blade
ignoring how the knife and thrust are made.

The truth’s The Beast’s inside us from day one
and prowls until our final pulse has gone.
Try to evict or kill and it remains.
Restraint’s your only hope. Make heavy chains.

(Taken from my free poetry ebook ‘Up the Old Road‘.)

Foul lamb

Foul lamb

It sickens me to waste my breath on you
but yellow fever strikes if I do not
spare a few strokes of my too-flimsy pen
to blast a sentry’s trumpet at the flock
and with mixed metaphors and alarm calls
warn that the brazen wolf is no more than
an angry dog on an elastic leash
avoided easily with simple steps,
or lupine brute in woollen onesie is…
a clear imposter to the watchful eye.

More breath I’ll waste to blow with all my might
a caution song to all the goodly beasts;
the greatest threat in the enclosure is
the lamb of selfish ram and mother born
whose feeble legs beguile its wolfish heart.

Axel is Free: opening chapters

The opening chapters to my latest novel, ‘Axel is Free,’ can be found in the Bath Spa creative writing MA anthology. This new work is the sequel to my first novel, ‘The Titans.’

‘The Titans,’ ended with protagonist Axel committing a terrible crime. ‘Axel is Free,’ begins twenty years later when he is released from prison.

Axel is Free

Nearly 30 years ago, whilst stationed at the Maze Prison with the British Army, I spent the evenings alone writing a novel rather than drinking Côtes du Rhône in the officers’ mess.

Despite interest on completion from an international publisher, The Titans was not published until I made it available as a free ebook. (The publisher wanted changes. I was young and arrogant. I refused.)

This year, whilst completing an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, I have written a sequel to The Titans. It is called ‘Axel is Free’.

In this new novel, the protagonist Axel Williams tries to carve out a new life after spending twenty years in detention. He blames his crime on the insidious influence of others – so buys a derelict home in the Brecon Beacons that he plans to restore, then live in as a hermit.

The first 2,000 words of this novel will appear in the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA anthology, in print and online, in May 2020.

Inside the corporation

Noam Chomsky describes the corporation as, “One of the most tyrannical systems that humans have ever devised.” Our working and private lives are dominated by them. So where are the novels that explore their malevolence?

Well mine is currently with a few publishers. It’s called Mr Livchild. Set in near-future London, it follows the rise and fall of Joe Nurbardy – a nobody desperate to be a somebody. Joe thought a corporation would give his life meaning. Instead it crushed him like an aphid pinched in a pair of pliers.

The novel is a Pandora’s jar of revelations about corporations, the transformation of Western society into a corpocracy and the lies we tell each other. (And, yes, Pandora’s box was originally a jar!)

Will Mr Livchild get published? Probably not. Because it’s not mainstream. But I’m proud of it. If it doesn’t get offered publication within a year, I’ll make it available on Smashwords.

The Village of Many Knights

Do you ever wish you had a grander title than Mr, Mrs, Master or Miss? Perhaps when you fill in a form and see options like Dr, Prof, Sen and Lord, you dream of being addressed with such grandeur. I don’t feel jealous. I hold an elevated title. Although every lad under twenty-one in my village is a simple squire; on reaching that age every man becomes a Sir. The women benefit too. All the wives of the senior folk are, by association, Ladies. Outsiders may claim that our titles don’t count, that our investiture ceremony isn’t official. But what makes things official? Validity is only gained through the support of the wider population. Everyone in my village recognises the authority of the Knighting Committee. Within our parish boundary our appointments are official. We are all knights. Of the village perhaps, rather than the realm – but noblemen no less.

The ceremony to proclaim each new knight, the ‘dubbing’, takes place inside our village’s only pub. At the northern edge of the pub car park, next to the main road, there is a ten-foot tall black wooden post. At the top, set inside a black wooden frame, is the pub sign. It is made from a solid piece of board three feet tall and two feet wide. It bears an identical image on both sides which is hand painted in thickly layered acrylics. The sign catches the eye of passers by in the day and is lit up at night – a welcoming beacon that draws thirsty customers inside. Most of the space is taken up by a picture; that of a saucy eighteenth century princess, sitting on the edge of her throne, seductively hoisting her skirt and layers of petticoats to reveal a light blue silk stocking topped with a dark blue embroidered band. The name underneath the bawdy depiction claims the pub is called ‘The Royal Garter’. In the village our drinking den is known by its nickname; ‘The Nickname’. It earns its pseudonym from the nature of the dubbing ceremony that takes place within its salmon pink exterior walls. Gaining a prestigious title is only half of what happens to us villagers on reaching manhood. In addition to becoming invested, we also receive a newly bequeathed nickname. Each man is dubbed Sir _________. The new name that follows their title, their Sir name, is decided by the Knighting Committee – the senior members of the Village Order who sit at the circular table under the stuffed bear head that’s screwed to the wall at the far end of the local’s bar.

The Nickname has two drinking rooms: a lounge and a locals’ bar. The locals’ bar is our Masonic lodge, our hallowed ground. Outsiders aren’t made welcome within its sacred walls. I don’t see anything wrong with that. On days when there isn’t a knighting ceremony, tourists are kindly invited by Sir Beer to make their way through to the lounge. If they decline his invitation and insist on entering the private den, eighteen-stone scaffolders and nineteen-stone farmers surround them like oversize hyenas closing-in on a poleaxed gazelle. Those visitors always take the unsubtle hint and shuffle through to the much more pleasantly decorated and well-lit lounge. On evenings when a dubbing is taking place, the lounge is locked and Sir Beer hangs a sack over the exterior pub sign – covering up our royal lady’s immodesty. He hangs a notice beneath the sack that says ‘Pub closed for private party’. Investiture nights are for village folk only.

I remember one dubbing, crammed into the smoky, stale ale smelling, dingy inner sanctum when four thirsty mountain bikers in their early twenties opened the door and peered in. The sight, noise and stench of tough working men packed inside like a bloodthirsty medieval dog fight crowd, caused the out-of-towners to freeze in the doorway like stuffed meerkats. For a moment it seemed they’d been turned to stone – as if we were snakes squirming on Medusa’s head with Sir Copper and Sir Jailor forming the Gorgon’s eyes. Then Sir Huge, the biggest man in the village, who rumour has it is actually related to the Titans of Ancient Greece, bellowed “Fuck Off”. Fuck off is not an original phrase. It is overused and because of this often lacks potency. Sir Huge’s exclamation didn’t. His instruction was delivered with such force that the hair on the heads of three of the cyclists (one of them was bald) was visibly ruffled. His two-word instruction lasted three or four seconds; the double ff at the end sounding like steam escaping from a burst pipe at a nuclear power plant. Before his roar was finished, the Lycra clad invaders had retreated from view, slammed the door shut, jumped on their bikes and could be heard pedalling frantically away from the suspended Garter.

Our investiture ceremony is uncomplicated and unruly. On the date of a male villager’s twenty-first birthday, he is expected to turn up at The Nickname at opening time. He’s never alone. As Sir Beer unlocks the battered front door, the lock clunking open in perfect sync with the seventh bong of the church clock, every local bloke over the age of eighteen is gathered outside. The only reserved seats are those for the Committee, so as he swings the portal open, the remainder charge in like Henry V’s rabble army storming Harfleur. Inside the drinking fortress, a scene erupts that even Sir John Falstaff would find a little too raucous. Once the purpose of the evening has been officially announced, all the knighted men are allowed to shout Sir name suggestions. Not that it’s all chaotic clamouring. An enthusiastic but marshalled debate will ensue in response to every reasonable proposal, with the Committee leading the discussion as dissenters in the crowd mumble their disapprovals. Because of the open nature of the process, choosing the name for a new member of the Order can take all night. Giving someone a new identity they will bear for life is a grave responsibility.

In simple cases, where there is only one person who has a particular job, they often end up being made knight of their profession. Sir Milk is our one and only milkman. Sir Post runs the village post office. Sir Head is the head teacher of the village school. Of course, when someone does not have a unique job, this method is no longer appropriate. Sir Huge is one of over a dozen farm labourers in the village – they can’t all be Sir Tractor. Other farm labourers include Sir Red Cheeks, Sir Wingnut and Sir Snotnose – physical characteristics being a reliable method for deciding a nickname among the better represented trades. As a rule, the later it gets, the more creative people become. A mate of mine stopped growing when he was five feet tall. Women usually like taller men but this guy never had a problem with the ladies. By the age of twenty-one, he’d shagged half the ignoble girls in the village and dozens from further afield. Names suggested throughout his late-running investiture included Sir Valentiny, Sir Gnomeo and Sir Humpa Humpa. In the end, way past midnight, he was dubbed Sir Casagnoma. The best nights are always the long ones. The more difficult a nut is to crack, the longer we stay, the more drunk we become and the sillier the names get. In the early hours, when most avenues have been exhausted, the failsafe way to appeal to a tired gathering is to conjure up a word play title. It’s around this time that anxious twenty-one year olds get really nervous. Sir Loin is the butcher’s assistant. We’ve a guy who loves playing practical jokes called Sir Prise; a bloke who’s backed out of every fight challenge he’s ever received called Sir Render; a know-it-all who never admits he’s wrong call Sir Tayne and the village traffic warden is called Sir Charge. Although some villagers admittedly come off badly from the naming ceremony, receiving a title and pseudonym is a fundamental part of our village life, so it’s all taken within a pinch of salt. What matters is the effect, not the detail.

People from my village don’t go on holiday as individuals or even families. We travel by the coachload. If there is ever any trouble, we are Musketeers: “All for one and one for all”. This unwritten rule also applies at sporting events. If a fight breaks out on the rugby pitch, it’s the “one in, all in” call of Willie John McBride’s 1974 Lions tour to South Africa. If a member of an opposition team wants to pick on one of our smallest – it’s instantly fifteen against fifteen as every man on the park charges, fists clenched, into battle. If things get really nasty the reserves plough into the opposition’s reserves as well. I can even remember an under-nineteen’s game when our coach was looking after his two year-old daughter on the day a fight broke out. He ran across the field of play/combat, cradling his toddler under his left arm as if she was a diamond-encrusted rugby ball, and floored the loud-mouthed opposition supporter who’d incited the violence with an overhead right. We are more than villagers who share the same second line on our addresses: we are an extended feudal family, brothers in arms, Knights of The Garter. Our tradition is the glue that binds us together and it has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. Sir Apprentice-Farrier, the oldest man in the village, says his great grandfather was a knight. But in every long and proud history there is always an ugly smudge, a stain on the records. Ours was Martin. He didn’t want to play ball.

Martin is two years older than me. I’d admired him as I grew up. He was one of those boys you could always sense the man in. At fourteen he behaved like he was eighteen or even twenty-one; forgoing pubescent rough and tumble or the pursuit of girls for higher aspirations. He distanced himself from village politics and never dealt in gossip. He was very bright and studied hard. At seventeen, he was the first person from our village to win a place at the country’s top university – to study law. We were such a proud fraternal bunch that a street party was held to celebrate his acceptance letter. As the sun set on our rustic horizon, he stood on the end of the assembled long table reciting poetry. He was, on that day, our own Richard Burton. Some say Richard Burton was a gay Welshman because he preferred women to rugby. Well Martin was a gay villager because he preferred the brash lure of the big city to the close companionship of the rural idyll that had nurtured him.

We never saw Martin during his studies. He stayed in the city all year round, working weekends and holidays in a five star hotel so that he could buy more books. Occasionally he’d return to the village late of an evening, parking his two-seater sports car outside his Mum’s house while his old mates were supping in The Nickname. We’d notice his flash motor as we stumbled homewards but it would be gone before any of us could catch up with him the next day, let alone invite him out for a beer the following evening. Despite his elusive nature, we never expected him to miss the one event he’d been groomed for; his coming of age, the recognition that he had left the huddles of boys to join the ranks of men – his dubbing. On the day of his twenty-first birthday we all crowded into The Nickname and waited for the village’s black sheep to return to the fold. He didn’t. We still drank of course, the knighted ones debating a name for him in absentia: Sir Shithead, Sir No-Fucking-Roots, Sir Totally Disrespectful and the inappropriately Anglo-Saxon, Sir Cunt. He was never bequeathed any of those monikers. As bitter as we all were at his desertion, the whole point of the process is to have the newly appointed one among you as the ceremony takes place. Half the fun of a dubbing is witnessing the soon-to-be nobleman squirming in response to, or vigorously challenging suggestions they’re not happy about. Martin didn’t deserve a Sir name. He had contravened the protocol, undermined our way of life.

After failing to appear, we stopped even mentioning him. His name didn’t exist in our village any more. Then, when he was twenty-four and a bit, his road building uncle Sir Vey died when the handbrake failed on the steamroller he’d been using as sunshield during a summer day’s siesta. The unnamed one came back for his uncle’s wake, which began in his aunt’s house and ended up in The Nickname. We spent several hours drinking to the memory of his uncle. It gradually got darker outside and the Ladies of the village slowly disappeared into the night. When the church clock struck eleven, there were only men left in the local’s bar. And the lounge bar was deserted. We all looked to Sir Beer to see if there was going to be a lock-in. Like a ringmaster he boomingly proclaimed, “Well boys, if you fancy a few more, we could always devote a couple of hours drinking time to working out this recalcitrant’s nickname.” There was a huge room- shaking, roaring cheer of approval. Pint glasses were thrust aloft sending airborne contents raining down on us like liquid confetti. Our reactionary city slicker shot to his feet like a Methodist preacher surrounded by sinners and looked towards the door. It was kicked shut by Sir Huge.

Realising that forcing his way out was not an option, the legal wordsmith resorted to the clever tongue of his profession. He didn’t want to be rude, he explained. He told us that he respected all the villagers. He thought the dubbing was a quaint tradition and a wonderful part of village life for those who willingly participated in it. He assured us that he would always continue to refer to men in the village using their Sir Names, as they so deigned. But personally subscribing to this outdated practice was not for him. He practised law in the capital, where he complied to and actively upheld a different code of conduct – the laws of our nation. Due to his position in society, and by virtue of his chosen career, it was entirely improper, he insisted, for him to be given a Sir name.

To this day in the village, he is known as Sir No-Nickname.


(This and 44 other short stories in A damaged boy – free until 1 Jan 2018.)

Marketing content – the worst of both worlds.

Marketing content is the fusion of advertising and unsponsored mass communication. In theory, it combines the best of both worlds. In reality, it’s a stinky potion of the worst. There are a number of reasons why. In this article, I cover trust.

Programme-making

Early in my media career, I was programme assistant to the Head of Short Stories at BBC Radio 4. Within months of getting the job, she made me responsible for sifting through unsolicited submissions. Inside a year she invited me to select, edit, produce and direct selected scripts. She gave me a little guidance, then let me get on with it.

One of the stories I produced was about an embittered ex-girlfriend who set fire to her ex’s flat… not realising he was locked inside. The BBC received two complaints from listeners. I was tasked with responding to them personally. No damage was done to the BBC. In fact, I’d contributed to the breadth of its output.

Sponsored content

Now imagine that’s sponsored content. A senior person and their junior assistant making audio content heard by millions? No additional oversight. No casting intervention. No cost controllers. Etc.

This can’t happen in the world of marketing content. There’s the agency team – creatives, producers, planners and others – all ‘contributing’. All knocking sharp corners off a sculpture until it’s a characterless sphere.

And then there’s the client – an upward cascade of marketing professionals who insist on changes that make the content even blander. Polish the sphere. Nobody wants to take a risk. Nobody wants failure attributed to their name. They’re terrified of a ‘listener’s letter’ scenario.

Trust

Trust doesn’t show on the balance sheet. The benefit of trust doesn’t jump from an email trail. You can’t explain why it’s vital. It’s intangible. So how can you argue for its inclusion?

Louis Armstrong came up with the best answer when asked to define the rhythmic concept of ‘swing’. “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” For a more recent example – study the phenomenally successful ‘Frozen’. Anti-hero prince, Broadway singer lead voice (rather than Hollywood pick), cold-hearted main character. I’ll wager the Frozen team was made up of individuals that were trusted and trusted one another.

Trust works in above-the-line advertising because a handful of high-profile people (advertising, client and media) can work together to produce something great. They trust one another. And they’re senior enough to reject broad interference.

Trust works in unsponsored mass communications such as broadcasting and journalism. Budgets force teams to be small. Without trust, nothing gets made.

Nobody ever built a statue to a committee

But in marketing content you have the worst of both worlds: big enough budgets to allow mass interference, and an absence of trust. So marketing content is shaped by committees of people who don’t trust one another. That’s a recipe for the blandest dish ever made. And after it’s been served, the committees reconvene to analyse why the intended audience didn’t lap it up. Or even show.

And because they can’t put a finger on it, the committees add more processes and contributors, or change the team. So next time around it’s even less likely trust will emerge. And another polished stone sphere is sculpted. To pile up with the rest.

I’ve worked journalism (BBC), programme-making (BBC and independent) and advertising (BBH). Now, like many ex-advertisers, broadcasters and journalists, I work in marketing content (BBS*).

*Bloody Boring Shit

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash