That time of year again …

I can’t believe it’s December tomorrow!  Well, I can in that it certainly feels like December, but it doesn’t seem like five minutes since the summer. Where did those months go?

Anyway, with the big C looming I thought I’d share a little piece I wrote at Holmfirth Writers on Monday – and am planning to read at a little party/reading event next Monday in aid of Holmfirth Library.  Not everyone is enamoured of all the fuss about Christmas ….

Christmas Lights

An insistent bell broke the silence of the afternoon. Mr Grimshank groaned and picked up the phone.

“Grimshank Undertakers. How can I help you? No – let me guess …”

“Ah, Hello Mr Grimshank. No, it isn’t that, I’m pleased to say. This is Aileen Arkwright, Chairperson of the Town Council. I’m just calling about your Christmas lights.

“I haven’t got any Christmas lights.”

“I know, that’s why I’m ringing. I was just going to ask when you might be putting them up.”

“Well, I’ll have a look in my diary. Let me see, when do I have a free slot to put some lights up? There we are. Never.”

“I’m sorry, Mr Grimshank, but I must remind you of Byelaw 794. ‘All business premises on the High Street shall be required to display Christmas lights during the month of December.’”

“Oh, for God’s sake, it’s only a Byelaw. I can’t be bothered.”

“Well, the Byelaw does specify a £500 fine for businesses that fail to comply. I’m sure that extra contribution to the council coffers would be much appreciated.”

“Bloody hell! Oh, all right then. Can it be any sort of light? I’ve got a security light I could leave on, if that would do.”

“I’m afraid not. The Byelaw specifies that the lights should span the full frontage of the premises. And they should have a Christmas theme.”

“Well, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know, seasonal motifs, like snowmen or reindeer, something like that. Or it could spell out a cheery Christmas message.”

“A cheery message? Outside an undertakers?”

“Ah yes, I see your point. Well, I suppose any Christmas-related message would do.”

“Any Christmas related message, eh? All right then, I suppose I’ll have to see what I can do. I didn’t vote for you, you know. And I shan’t be voting for you next time either after this. I think it’s a bloody liberty. But you’ll get your Christmas-related message.”

“Thank you, Mr Grimshank.

And sure enough, two days later, the undertaker’s shop was festooned with a string of fairy lights spelling out the words:

“Bugger Xmas”.



photo © Paul Lakin 2013


It’s occurred to me that I haven’t posted here for a while about the novel I’ve been writing about a woman’s relationship with her father as he loses his memory.  Time to rectify that!

First, some news.  The good news is that the novel is finished! (at least for now), following a second round of editing in the light of comments from a couple of writer friends.  I have decided to see if I can interest an agent in it, so I have sent the first chapters out and am now awaiting responses.  So the not so good news is that, given the lengthy and uncertain nature of that process, it is likely to be some considerable time still before the novel – now provisionally entitled Going Down in Flames – sees the light of day.

Secondly, since it is entirely appropriate for this time of year – today being the day after Remembrance Sunday – I thought I would share with you the opening passage of the novel.


“Do I look all right, Claire?”

He is not normally a vain or meticulous person, but this morning he has spent over an hour preparing every aspect of his appearance. He is virtually immaculate, but for the sake of showing I care, I straighten his cap a little, polish his medals briefly with my hanky, brush back a few short strands of grey hair that have crept over the edge of his ear. Then I kiss him on the cheek, quickly checking that I have left no smudge of lipstick behind. Today of all days I have to make the most of it, this fleeting moment of intimacy.

“You look great, Dad.”

“Thanks, love. I’ll see you later.”

I hug him and wave enthusiastically as he walks away to join the column of veterans forming up in Stockwell Street. A few minutes later, commands are shouted, bass and snare drums pound out a steady beat and the old boys (and the occasional old girl) begin to march smartly down the road, still remembering the parade ground drill hammered into them many decades ago.

The rest of us – the families, the well-wishers, the curious spectators – stand respectfully still to watch the marchers pass, then follow them to the war memorial in our own shambling, undisciplined way. We watch in silence as they place their wreaths and bow their heads to fallen comrades.

In the few years that I have been bringing him to this event, we have developed a little tradition of our own, Dad and I. When the ceremony has finished, I do not rush to separate him from his friends and shepherd him back to the car; nor do I seek to insert myself into conversations between old men to which I have nothing to contribute, about matters that I am not privileged to know. Instead, I go to a little café fifty yards up the road. I buy myself a cappuccino and a small cake, and I wait. On this occasion I make a half-hearted attempt to read a paperback novel, putting it down when my mind obstinately refuses to pay any attention to the characters. I eat my cake and drink my coffee, then I stare out of the window and tell myself how appropriate November is for an event like this, with its miserable grimy sky and its damp, cold air and its naked skeletons of trees. I am almost sorry that it is not raining.

After about half an hour, my father walks into the café. We acknowledge each other with silent nods. He sits down and, by unspoken agreement, I go to the counter and buy him a cup of tea. He drinks it, sip by tiny sip, over the course of twenty minutes, slowly restoring some small portion of the vitality that has been visibly sucked out of him. In previous years, there have been various questions I would try to ask him during this time. Questions like “would it help to talk about it?”; “Wouldn’t sharing the pain help to soften it?”; “Doesn’t bottling it up inside just make it worse?” Nowadays I know better than to ask such questions at this or any other time. My mother could have told me, and did, when I finally talked to her about it. She had fared no better, in the days when it was she who came with him on Remembrance Sunday.

“They never talk about what really bothers them, men,” she said. “Their Dads beat it out of them when they’re little boys. Teaches ‘em to be manly, they think. More like child abuse, if you ask me. I’ll always do the best I can for him, like, but I gave up trying to get him to talk about it years ago.” For all her fierce determination to be the sort of wife who stands by her husband at moments of high emotion, I think she may have been quietly relieved when a dodgy hip released her from this annual duty.

It seems to be duty that drags my father back here every year too, as far as I can tell from his monosyllabic answers in the days when I still ventured to ask those questions. This man who prays to no God, who expects no afterlife, still feels inexorably bound by obligations owed to men who died long ago. For them, each year, he opens up his wounds, sheds fresh blood, relives ancient horrors so terrible that he cannot speak of them. He is not like his Air Force friends: on days like this, you may often hear them laugh, see smiles upon their faces. Not on his. He can joke and tell stories with them for hours on other days, when the focus of their attention is on the good times they had together rather than the grim business of war itself, but there is no escaping that today. What experiences he went through that had this effect on him, I don’t suppose I will ever know. They remain closed off, sealed inside a bubble. I don’t know if he even talks about them to his friends – there are certainly some things he talks to them about but not to me. If he does, they are not telling – don’t think I haven’t asked them.

So for those twenty minutes, we communicate not in words, but with smiles and glances. And by touch – sometimes I will place my hand over his. I like to think it helps. I have learned to chart his progress at these times by the movements of his eyes and the muscles of his face. So it does not come as a surprise when at last he gives a long, deep sigh, as if flushing the last of the badness out of him, and finally speaks.

“Well, I suppose it’s about time we were getting back, then. Your Mum’ll have something nice on the table, I reckon.”

“It’d be a shame to let it go cold, wouldn’t it?”

“You’re right, it would.”

And it was true, she always did cook something he particularly liked on these days – toad in the hole or steak and kidney pie, something like that. It was her way of helping, I suppose, now she could no longer come with him.

Once the silence had been broken, the words poured out of him as we started walking back to the car. Not deep, revealing words but ordinary, inconsequential ones about anything that came into his head, filling the hole left by what could not be said. A kind of healing.


[Photo by mattbuck, CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Why I don’t do NaNoWriMo

I’ll start this post with a few words for the benefit of those readers who are scratching their heads wondering what that weird title means. The month of November has become known in certain circles as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. People commit to writing an entire novel of 50,000 words by 30 November, and during the month they report on their progress and receive encouragement as their word count grows. I know lots of people who have had a go at this, and some who do it every year. Good luck if you’re doing it this time! But I’ve never done NaNoWriMo myself, and probably never will. Why?

I can certainly see the attraction for someone who has never written a novel before but has often wondered whether they could, and may have had a few ideas lying around for years that they have never pursued. By committing to NaNoWriMo they force themselves to stop dithering and go for it. At the end of the month, they will have a much better idea whether novel writing is for them. If it is, they already have a first draft right there. And if it isn’t – well, now they know.

I can also see the point of doing NaNoWriMo as a one-off challenge, even for those who have already written books. In the same kind of spirit as running a marathon or doing a parachute jump, it pushes you to go beyond your comfort zone. I imagine it is pretty satisfying to submit those 50,000 words, knowing you have met the challenge. And I can well believe that for someone suffering from writer’s block, NaNoWriMo might be a good way of bulldozing through it. But lots of people, including published writers, do NaNoWriMo year after year. They must find value in doing so, not simply as a challenge, but as a creative tool.

As for me, I enjoy writing, but what I don’t enjoy is re-writing material that isn’t quite right yet. The business of deciding what exactly is wrong with it, what to keep and what to cut, of keeping track of the changes you’ve made and identifying what consequential amendments need to be made elsewhere. It’s unavoidable, but I find it difficult and irksome and I’d rather do no more of it than is absolutely necessary. So I try to do as much as possible of my editing as I go along. At the end of a week I’d much rather have 3000 words that I’m pretty happy with than 10,000 words that are going to need a lot of editing later on.

This is where I struggle with the idea of writing 50,000 words in a month. I think I could do that if I had to, but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be 50,000 words that I’d be happy to send off to a publisher. I suspect they would need a LOT of editing. There would be a great deal of effort involved in turning those words into something I was satisfied with. And all that editing would take a lot of time, of course. As I see it, what would be the point in compressing the part of the process I enjoy – the writing – and expanding the part I don’t enjoy – the editing? I doubt I would have a finished novel any quicker, and the process would have been a lot less fun.

Perhaps I am just a slow writer. I know people who can write 5000 words a day (I’ve never managed more than half that). Perhaps that kind of writer can do NaNoWriMo and produce not just any old 50,000 words but 50,000 good quality words, in a coherent story that doesn’t need any more than normal editing. I don’t think I could. Then there are people who like editing their work. For them, the process of turning 50,000 rough and ready words into a finished novel is not a chore but a labour of love. So what to me seems like the major drawback of NaNoWriMo is for them a positive boon. Each to their own, I guess!

But I still wonder (and I guess that’s the reason for this blog post) whether I am missing something. Is there some benefit that doing NaNoWriMo can offer even to someone like me – someone who doesn’t write quickly and doesn’t particularly enjoy editing their work – that I have failed to spot? If so, I’m hoping those NaNoWriMo fans out there will tell me!

An Afternoon With 3 Authors

I enjoyed the Three Authors event in Slaithwaite on Sunday. Fellow HWG member Terence Park has done a write up of the event on his blog – including (gulp!) a video of me reading from Revolution Day!

tparchie - Blog

I go to too few book readings and I suspect this is as much to do with the weakness of the local writers’ grapevine as it is with ivory tower syndrome. It’s also more of a rarity in my neck of the woods. Today I go over t’other side off t’Pennines to an author reading at The Gallery. Enough of the colloquialisms already. Slaithwaite is 5 miles south-west of Huddersfield on the A62. I use satnav – I know how to get to Slaithwaite but my route will involve getting lost on the A62 plus a brief tour of the inner ring road in Huddersfield – I’ve been lost there before so once I gravitate there at least I’ll know where I am, and possibly an excursion to discover if pie shops in Huddersfield open on Sunday. But I haven’t the time, so it’s the M62 and a switchback route…

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