Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or sociability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

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* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!

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So, Where Are We

A comment by one of my readers  about whether the Panylraeans – the aliens of the first book, Sorrow Mystica – return in later novels got me thinking about how I have arrived at a position where I know there will be at least seven novels (Nodes 0 and 2-6), and possibly eight if Node 1 (Operation Flashlight) ever gets finished. And possibly more. And that the Panylraeans may not (but then again, they might) return.

So – to begin at the beginning. The first of the Dereham Nodes to be written is the one recently published, Raven of Dispersion. As it was my first novel, there were things I wasn’t happy with, so several million rewrites occurred. Okay, so several million is an exaggeration. About twenty drafts.

During these travails I helped Kevin Goodman write his UFO Warminster: Cradle of Contact. After we finished that, Kevin suggested we write something else. Knowing of his interest in science fiction and UFOs, I suggested fiction with a sci fi bent. Of course, Kevin wanted aliens in there somewhere. I wanted to subvert such notions. So we kind of compromised on a Ruth Rendell-style sci fi involving aliens, contactees, relationships and… well… read it, and you’ll see how it all came together. But, because Raven already involved the paranormal and young people looking for flying saucers, I thought it might be fun if we set at least part of Sorrow in Dereham, the ufological hotspot I had already invented for Raven. The seeds for a series were thus sown.

After I’d finished writing Raven of Dispersion and was editing that and Kev’s book, I had an idea for a novel I thought of as “Band Novel”, that would move the characters of “Raven” to 1984 — older, possibly wiser, possibly madder in some cases, some of whom would be, yes, you guessed it, in a band. So I started making notes.

However, while I was making notes for “Band Novel”, I was looking at some of my old writing notes, and noticed one that involved a hitman. What, I thought, if a bunch of young Wiltshire hippies were confronted with somebody who claimed he was a hitman? Wouldn’t they just think him delusional? And what if they started following him around. What would happen? And so The Ethical Hitman – which will be the next novel published – took shape.

Meanwhile, Kevin had become interested in what had happened to some of the characters from Sorrow Mystica, and what they might get up to after that book finished. So he started sending me rough ideas for a kind of thriller spy-type book. Given that I’d already started working on The Ethical Hitman, and knew “Band Novel” would happen at some point in the future, I could see ways to tie all these together, and make fun interconnections between all the books.

Kevin wanted  what was to become Crossing the Line to be a spy-thriller-guns-explosions type of book. But I wanted to subvert that. So, we compromised on a Ruth Rendell-style spy-thriller-guns-explosions type book. Yes, we were mashing genres. We wrote Crossing really quickly, enjoying ourselves immensely, finishing it and the drafts of Sorrow while I was still on draft 12 of Raven.

Sorrow Mystica and Crossing the Line are set in 1971/1972, while Raven of Dispersion is set in 1976. It made sense then that, when I decided to self-publish, the novels should be released in the same order as their timeline.

So next then will be The Ethical Hitman, Genial (both set in 1976), and then German Overalls (set in 1984).

Kevin and I are also working on Panlyrae: A Message for Mankind and Operation Flashlight, which would be nodes 0 and 1, and will be set in the 40s/50s/60s. These could be released at any point in the series.

And then, there might well be something set on the planet Panlyrae at some indeterminate point in the age of the universe. I have ideas…

There might also be something about a couple of characters from Dereham dithering about whether to take a trip on the Settle and Carlisle railway. This one will be a hoot. I might need Kevin to subvert the rather Ruth Rendell-ish, Anita Brookner-ish nature of it with guns, bombs, aliens and spies.

Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion” Published

Finally! Node 4 of the Dereham Connections has arrived.

Not quite in time for Christmas, unless you’re very quick – but it is finally published this year, at least. The book is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon, and available to order as a paperback from other places, I should imagine.

Raven of Dispersion is set in the imaginary Dereham, somewhere in an imaginary corner of Wiltshire, in a very real long, hot, summer of 1976. The mysteries that swirl about the town are about to entangle the young and the arrogant in ways they can’t imagine.

Six friends. Charlie, James and  Imogen, Stuart and Kate, Paul. They walk the sun-soaked hill tops, searching for answers, looking for UFOs. They talk about the occult. They drink, flirt, smoke and kiss.

Charlie had always fancied Imo. Tall, beautiful Imo. Everybody loved her.

Imo loved James. Except… Except, James was fond of his brandy, and at eighteen had already started down a road that led, Imo feared, to drunkenness and dissolution.

Imo was, however, happy that her best and oldest friend had fallen for Stuart. Handsome Stuart. Flirty Stuart. Lots of girls fancied Stuart, even Imogen once – much to Charlie’s chagrin. What Charlie feared most was that Imogen would one day leave James and take up with Stuart. Why he feared this outcome above all else, Charlie wasn’t sure. So when he fell for Paul’s younger sister Jane, he felt he could at last put all that nonsense about Imo behind him. It wasn’t like he was obsessed or anything. No, he wasn’t like that at all.

And Paul? He had studied the occult masters, and was a neophyte no longer. He knew how to perform the Banishing Ritual and Regardie’s Healing Ritual of the Middle Pillar. He had seen Raphael and Ariel. When he and James whimsically decide to work the paths of the Kabbala one night on Copsehill, what could possibly go wrong?

Everything…

Because when the Raven of Dispersion enters their world, a slow spiral into madness begins.

Raven of Dispersion at Amazon

Dereham Connections – Node 4 – “Raven of Dispersion”

So, after the contactees and spies and conspiracies of the early 1970s, Node 4 — Raven of Dispersion moves us into the middle of the decade, and the long, hot summer of 1976. We leave behind characters that we have followed through the two preceding novels. Now, instead of spies and contactees and night-club owners, we become involved with young adults.

But I don’t like to think of this as a young adult novel — the characters are simply young; when I was that age, I didn’t think of myself as a young adult. I just thought I was brilliant and knew everything.

The characters in Raven of Dispersion are burgeoning intellectuals, exploring the world of ideas through the unconventional route of UFOs and the paranormal, and their first explorations of T S Eliot, Karl Marx, DH Lawrence,  Colin Wilson, and so on. Of course, being young, there are feelings to contend with  — love, and that new-fangled word, relationships.

It is at this nexus of love and the unconventional that things go a little bit awry. Because the young can be just a bit too sure of themselves, certain that they know what they are doing. And the young might also think their experiments — with balloons and lights, let us say — can surely have no consequences beyond the scientific.

And yet one balloon, and one set of lights — mixed with a pinch of beauty and one lovin’ spoonful of psychosis — are the ingredients for a proper brouhaha.

Simon and Julie – The Beginning – Fragment

[Simon and Julie is intended to be a long short story (perhaps a novella), involving various characters from the two as yet unpublished novels The Ethical Hitman and Raven of Dispersion. The story (and those novels) are set in and around the long, hot summer of 1976. The protagonists and antagonists are at that happy stage between A-levels and Uni (or A-levels and work ) – technically young adults, but these are not YA stories. As I work on this story, I will throw odd fragments here in the blog.]


Simon walked along Goldfinch Drive towards home. The sun was hot, the sky cloudless, a pale hazy blue, pearly towards the sun. The road was inclined slightly, and at the brow there was a shimmer above the asphalt. On both sides of the shimmering road were neat, semi-detached houses with well-tended front gardens. He had left Nick and Mark at The White Lion, sitting in the beer garden. Simon couldn’t afford another drink, and found sitting in the hot sun stifling. He had wanted to move, to stretch his limbs, so decided to walk home, where he would read a book, perhaps, in the shade.

At the top of Goldfinch Drive, just before he would turn into Magpie Road where he lived, Simon found Chris and Gray leaning against the front wing of a mustard-yellow, 1968 Triumph Vitesse. The car was Gray’s, and was in the drive of his parent’s  large detached house. Chris saluted as Simon approached.

Simon slowed. “Hey guys. What’s happening?”

“Nothing,” Chris said.

“Nothing yet,”  Gray added.

Yet? You have a plan then?”

“Could be, could be,” Gray said. “We’re thinking of going for a drive.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere,” Chris said.

“So why are you still standing here?”

“Petrol,” Gray said. “We only have enough petrol to get us to Southleigh and back. And we don’t want to go there.”

“Put some petrol in then.”

“Ah, well, now there’s the crux of the matter, the very rub if you will. We have no money.”

“Well, I do have about fifty pence in my pocket,” Chris said.

“I want to move,” Gray said. “It’s hot, I’ve got a convertible, I want the wind in my hair and a breeze in my face.”

Chris nodded along the road. “It’s Julie,” he said. Simon and Gray turned to look.  A young woman approached them along the road. Her hair was shoulder-length, blonde, straight, parted in the middle. She wore jeans, jesus boots and a tee-shirt.

“Can’t you borrow some money from your mum and dad?” Simon said.

Gray shook his head. “The kiddies are gone away. On holiday. Torquay.”

“Oh great,” Simon said. “When’s the party?”

“No chance,” Gray said.

Julie drew level with them. “Hello there. There’s a party?”

“No,” Gray said.

“His parents never forgave him for the last one,” Chris said. “They told him they’d sell the car if he did it again.”

“I love my car.”

Julie looked at Simon. Her eyes were very blue. They sparkled in the sun. “I thought I saw you down town with Mark and Nick.”

“You did. But they wanted to drink some more. I was too hot. I met these two on the way home. They were idling.”

“Do you have money, Jules?” Grey said.

Julie put her hand in her pocket and withdrew two ten pence pieces, a five pence piece, and a couple of coppers. “Not even enough for ten Number Six.”

“Here, have one of mine,” Chris said. He offered Julie the cigarette, and lit it with a match.

“So where’s Tim?” Gray said.

“We’ve fallen out,” Julie said. “I haven’t seen him for a while.”

“How long is this separation going to last?” Simon said.

Julie blew smoke into the blue, tilted her head back, smiled. “Don’t pretend to be interested. I’ll talk to Sarah about it later.”

“Thank god for that,” Chris said. “We have important matters to think about. So how much have we got between us? Si, you said you had about fifty pence. Julie, you want join us? Put your twenty-eight pence in the pot?”

“Sorry, I need my money,” Julie said.

“And I need mine for a class,” Simon said.

“Oh, come on,” Gray said. “Why go to a class in the summer when you don’t have to?”

“It’s kung fu.”

“Oh yes,” Gray said. “Forget I said anything. Ahem.”

“Haven’t you two got any money?”

“I’ll need another packet of fags,” Chris said.

Gray shrugged, pouted. “And I have some money, but I need to make it last for the week.”

“Have your parents taken their car?” Simon said.

“No,” Gray said. “It’s in the garage.”

“Has anybody thought,” Simon ventured, “to siphon some petrol from the Mini?”

Gray looked at Chris. “Well, you’re the mechanical brains of this outfit. Can we?”

“Well, yes, we can. Simon, that is brilliant. If you smoked, I’d give you a fag. Julie, give him a kiss.”

Julie dropped her cigarette on the floor and scraped it across the asphalt of the driveway beneath her sandal. She leaned over and kissed Simon on the cheek. She smelled of tobacco, scent, soap and sunshine.