The Sleeper

Part One

I wake to a false sky with trails of white cloud all pixels at their edges. Recycled air dries the gunk around my eyes and it's then that I realise that I'm floating in space.

Ascending notes play, the signature chime of the ELC. I instantly place it but remember nothing of me. Why the ELC should mean anything. Why I'm even lying here, come to that.

This comfy state of non-reflection doesn't last long.

Prepare to disembark,” speaks a female voice and then I'm smothered by a rubber sheet. I try to inhale but breathing isn't possible and I'm about to be suffocated when I feel a force pull me to my right. And then I'm spat through a side aperture and on to a bed. I gasp and turn, the membrane now shrivelled in my wake. 

A dark cave opens out and my eyes struggle to adapt and my breath tries to gain a foothold but it is too cold for that. I am close to hypothermia, my grey smock so damp and thin it is making it worse. The cave draws out forever, low red lights identical to my own and in grid formation. A human wakes underneath each one. Well, apart from the ones where a human never wakes at all.

Oi!” comes the shout, male and impatient. “Get up!”

I squint as my face is caught by the approaching glare of a flash-light.

Get up, now!” The beam drops and I see a large man in a brown boiler-suit walk over to my right. He repeats the order, to some poor sod languishing in the dark. “Get up and on your feet!” He means both of us.

I try to stand but my muscles feel wasted. One look at my arms suggests they've been stolen from a twelve year old. And then there's my pot belly. And the pristine look of my pale and fleshy hands. I shake my head and wonder how long it's been since this body walked on its own two feet. Decades, possibly. Probably longer.

Corporation inspectors prod dead bodies and check for signs of life. The number of those not moving is easily one in ten. The inspectors seem unperturbed by this, however. Just nod and exchange words with one another and cross codes and numbers from their tablets. Apparently this number is accounted for, well within expected rates of attrition. They each shrug as the corpses are loaded onto programmed flat-beds that patrol the cave's great floor. I remember tales about medieval times past. “Bring out your dead” I almost hear them cry.

This historical note is about the only thing I can remember. It's alarming that a thick fog obscures everything where my name and self should be. This kind of symptom is probably to be expected, I think, especially after a sleep of however many years. But knowing this doesn't help me feel any better about it. Or reduce a fear of the unknown that's building.

I look to my neighbour - a young man with a pleasant face and mixed complexion - wave and clear my throat.

You two!” barks the inspector, aggrieved to be telling us more than once, “on your feet! Now!” He wields his kosh. We won't get another chance.

Fear gives me strength and I jump up to my feet. The inspector seems satisfied and moves on and I'm left to my own devices. Surely the fact that I'm unused to this kind of treatment means there's been some mistake?

It's a vain hope. Being a sleeper doesn't work like that.

Cold steel nestles in the small of my back and pushes me forward.


A pale blue sign illuminates over the entrance up ahead, changing to every language of the Confederate at one second intervals. I recognise the characters but none of the words. Below, a brightly lit doorway reveals a chamber with rusted walls. They bear the words “HOLDING CELL” in white and flaking paint and so we shuffle towards it like a procession of the walking dead.

And then I see a message in a language I can understand.

This way please. It is written in plain English.

And so slowly, and with a heavy sense of dread, I join my fellow passengers in the holding cell. For now, any questions regarding my identity will have to wait. 


The Sleeper

The Sleeper is a short story set in the same universe as The Iron Gate. It was published as a serial back in 2012. Since the sequel is nearly ready, it's time to re-release it. It's had a few tweaks since the last time but nothing major. I think it reads much better for it. 

So, then, The Sleeper; a story about losing your memory up in space. And the consequences of getting it back too early.


Pressure Drop

The brain sits inside a bag of spinal fluid that extends all the way from the skull down into the spine. This bag also consists of a group of membranes called the meninges, the same group of membranes that are responsible in cases of meningitis. This spinal fluid inside the bag flushes waste products from the brain and provides cushioning and support in the event of any movement. When the fluid pressure becomes too low, however – typically when there is a small leak somewhere in the meninges – the brain sags downward and stretches the brain's membranes and nerve lining.

Patients suffering with this condition often complain that their thoughts are hard to form and their speech is often slurred. They experience sensations of dizziness and nausea and will start to complain of random periods of dry eyes and tinnitus. More debilitating than any of these things, though, is the intense headache incurred from sitting or standing in an upright position. Consequently, maintaining a normal routine soon becomes impossible. It is a condition known as Low Cerebrospinal Fluid Pressure Headache and it turns out this is the likely cause of all my recent headaches.

Write about what you know, or so the adage goes. Well, for the last five months or so, trying to understand the cause of all the pain inside my head has been occupying all my efforts. Defining my experience, if you like. The story of how I came to find out is interesting in itself because it's taught me a thing or two about diagnostics and analysis, not to mention the virtue of valuing the good health you have already. So I thought I would try and tell it here. Three paragraphs in, here goes.

It all started about fifteen months ago with a nagging and persistent headache that seemed to show up at the end of every day, sometimes even earlier. It persisted over spring and summer but to cut a long story short, it was never fully understood. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 but it wasn't handy at the time and it was much easier for everyone - doctors and myself included - to wave the vague finger somewhere in the direction of migraines, stress and depression and identify those as the main causes. I was working as a freelance environmental enforcer at the time and whilst I freely admit it was getting on top of me for many reasons, the headaches proved to be the final straw. It made sense that it could be the stress of the job that was giving me all this every day and so, after three years, I figured my body was trying to tell me something and I hit the panic button, made my excuses and left.

By happy accident, the headaches did fade away around the time I was working back in Nottingham in the winter as a labourer, but the minute I got returned to London they instantly returned. Naturally, it was tempting to think the two things were connected. Somehow, despite wanting to live here, London was stressing me out? It was kind of plausible. But to the point where I couldn't walk, take public transport or leave the house? If that was true then the science fiction writer in me was desperate to find out why. Was it something to do with all the smog and pollution? A consequence of living amongst so many wireless transmissions? Things were starting to border on tin-foil hat territory. So, in the absence of any tangible theory, stress was the only explanation left to sit there and take root.

Each time I went to see the doctor they prescribed me some more mind-bending medication, five different types in the end, some with substantial side-effects that really slowed me down. Things continued to deteriorate though, and it wasn't long before I was feeling a crushing pain inside my skull consistently and all the time, to the point where I couldn't think straight and would have to lie down or go to bed. I lost my new job and it wasn't long before even writing became difficult. Panicking, I kept on turning up at the Doctor's or A&E but because there was no sign of stroke or tumour they kept on sending me back to see the other. It began to feel like I was trapped in some kind of Kafkaesque loop.

My condition was now at the point where I couldn't move my head without it feeling like it was being constricted in some kind of vice or calliper. By evening, I'd be flat on my back with my head tilted towards the ceiling because standing or sitting felt like I'd been bashed on the back of head with a spade. Well, it still does, to be honest. But back then I didn't know how to treat it. I don't mind admitting that things were starting to get a little desperate

But as I lay there, dosed up on some new medication that was giving me heart palpitations and making my face itch, it hit me: if lying down flat was the only thing that relieved the pain, surely this pointed to a potential problem with my spinal posture or pressure? Or circulation, something like that. A simple search through online medical journals and an urgent visit to a private neurologist confirmed it. Every symptom matched those associated with someone with a case of Low CSF Brain Pressure. And so it's amazing that just by asking a different question, I was on the money in less than five minutes flat. The neurologists don't yet all concur, sadly, and the truth is that no-one has any real idea how long it will take before I am feeling fully better or 'cured'. It could take years, or tens of thousands of pounds if I don't want to wait that long. Which has been quite a lot to take in, to be truthful.

As far as emotions go, it's a bewildering mix. I'm relieved that I don't have a tumour so as far as that's concerned, I'm very grateful. But in other respects, it's been totally overwhelming because it has fundamentally changed so many things about my life and in many ways I did not expect. You see, whilst everyone was saying this was stress, there was the hope that this condition would leave in the same way that it started. Now I know it isn't some intangible illness or pollutant but an actual physical condition that I have to live with and manage until they find a cure, usually by means of epidural blood patch. If it is low brain CSF (and all the evidence so far suggests it is) then it's quite a rare condition (affecting five in a hundred thousand people) which is why it is taking so long for anyone to diagnose and I gather treatment may not be very quick or straight forward. Basically, the rest of the next year looks set to turn out very differently to the one I'd originally planned.

I spend most of my life lying down now and that soon brings with it many problems of its own. A simple thing like walking to the shops is difficult and longer excursions require the right combination of pills before I can realistically set off confident I can get back without having some kind of seizure. These happen when I do any kind of activity and become so bad that I have to lie down in public spaces which - I'm sure you can appreciate - is not always possible in a big city like London. I don't want to get hooked on painkillers so I save those for special occasions. As a result, I cannot work and social trips are beyond me. Countless hours are spent lying on the floor and I seem to have become quite an expert in 'shutting down'. Everything is difficult when my brain feels like it's being poached, especially writing because I can't focus on the words. I end up just wanting to throw my laptop on the floor.

Much of the realisation has felt like some kind of slow and terrible dawn. I've heard about the stages of a grieving process, and in many ways, that is exactly what has been going on, but over many different things as I come to terms with what is lost and what soon might be. First I was in denial, then I was angry, especially regarding my reduced ability to write. Then I was depressed, then I tried to bargain with my doctors, frantically trying to change the situation by pleading with them to bump me up the queue. Acceptance has been reached now, I think, on a whole number of losses or 'changes'. And that is good, because now I've accepted it, writing should now become a little easier. It will be slower now, and less comfortable, but I can still do it just about. Especially if I fashion some kind of ingenious seating arrangement or something. It definitely will be worth the effort to try.

Who knows how it will all progress. Various books are on the brink of completion but I was never a very quick writer to begin with. The Iron Gate will be published one way or another within the next year, I'm very definite of that. I'm also going to try and forget about the fact I can't make this year's Loncon3. I was due to attend as a Tech volunteer and was really looking forward to it but here's hoping everyone going and taking part has a really good convention.

The positive is that I know what I'm fighting now and that's an immense relief. Knowledge is power and I can now manage my symptoms quite accurately, to the point where I'm no longer caught out in the way I ever was before. Caffeine actually produces spinal fluid, so a hearty kick of the black stuff in the morning keeps me sweet for a couple of hours, sometimes 'til lunch if I take it very easy. I have a loving family, friends and a very supportive partner which means more to me than anything at a time like this. 

Hopefully now I've turned a corner, I'll be able to fashion some progress in the year ahead. Here's hoping. And thanks for reading this far - I know this doesn't make for light reading but it feels better to write about it and get it off my chest. I'll keep a log of any major developments but for now, I have finished writing about what I know. Now...time to dust off those old word files and get back to being started. 


...And The Circus Leaves Town

Jorge wakes to find an angry partner by an empty fridge. All the money's been squandered on beer and nachos and those conical little party hats that litter the space around his chair like totems from happier times. He shrugs his sorry and says goodbye, makes himself a coffee and tries to look for work. But soothing voices are chattering in the ether all around him and he can't resist for very long. You see, life has become infinitely simpler these last few weeks, as if all the complexities have finally been reduced into something he can understand.

Half-hearted attempts at work continue but there's a familiar sense of something trying to cook his brain. Any excuse, he thinks, but the pain's disabling and turning his neck feels like twisting through barbed & rusted wire. Despite outside appearances to the contrary, his grey matter feels as though it's expanding inside a pressure cooker that's been fashioned into the shape of his own skull. Breathing heavily and sunken at his panel by five, Jorge's head doesn't move again until long past midnight.

It's been months like this, staring up from the sea-bed and watching his life drift on by without him. Sometimes he can observe himself lying there and he's amazed to see his own chest still rising as he sinks further in the dirt.Whatever, he thinks, just give me more of those triangles and exotic haircuts, colourful strips and the raw and unbridled passion when someone scores a goal. So elegant and cathartic, a perfect distraction from far away lands. Jorge figures he'll work out how to move again when the circus leaves town.


Summer in the City



Top Bombing

They'll learn

You can't post two blogs about England & the World Cup and then look the other way when they bomb out of their group. Well, maybe you can (and God knows I wanted to), but regardless, it always takes a day or three to wash an England defeat out my system. I usually avoid all newspapers and television but this time, I'm at least trying to keep some sense of perspective. I wouldn't describe myself as that patriotic, really, but football was a game I was brought up on and so England matches have always brought me out in a deluded rash of optimism. 

Overall, my assessment is that we've played a little better at this World Cup but we look weak both defensively and in the head. Additionally, it's surprising that a man as experienced as Roy Hodgson has made tactical errors in both matches. Still, he seems like an honest sort of chap who wants to play positive and at least we resemble a much more cohesive unit than the rabble of dross that flew out to South Africa four years ago. Maybe England have finally turned the corner, who knows? Whatever, I'm too long in the tooth to spend the next two years holding my breath. Overall this World Cup's been brilliant and the passion, colour and excitement on show has - for me anyway - softened the blow of our early exit. 

As far as this blog's concerned, normal service should resume shortly. Still struggling to put my finger on what a normal service actually is, but this isn't a sport blog and I'm not trying to move into football writing or anything similar. The dichotomy of emotion that is the World Cup was just something I wanted to share. That said, this has inspired something of a little story in me as well. Two or three bits of writing actually, some fiction, some a little bit more reflective and weird. Now the race is on to see if I can get them posted up in time for the tournament's knock-out stages. I'll let you know.


Seven Days In

All great eras must come to an end, as they say, but at least Spain can look back on theirs as truly golden. They'll be remembered as one of the greatest national sides in history and whilst their exit was a little more abrupt and painful than they'd have liked (even France didn't capitulate this badly back in 2002), Spain should regard their achievements over the last eight years with a great deal of pride. Despite being eliminated within seven days, the talents and exploits of Xavi, Iniesta and co. will live on long in the world's memory and it'll be a long time before they're ever repeated. That is to say if they ever are at all...

Overall, though, and forgetting this one main upset, it'd be fair to say there's been a glut of goals during the first week of this World Cup and some really memorable games so far. We're only are a quarter of the way through but it already looks like Brazil 2014 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting tournaments in recent memory with the hosts looking shaky and the holders already out. What's striking is that compared to South Africa four years ago, the majority of teams (with the exception of maybe Russia and Honduras) are playing attractive, attacking football and this is great news for the tournament and spectators the world over.

From my early impressions, Chile and Holland look to be the most impressive and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see either one of them turn up in the final in three weeks time. As I said in my last post though - and which has now since been borne out - predictions are a mug's game (which is probably why I persist in making them). But it'll be fascinating to see how it all unfolds in the end.

As for England, let's just pray they can get through tonight. I thought they played well and deserved a point against the Italians – well, as much as you can ever say a losing team ever truly 'deserves' anything - so I'm desperately hoping they make their chances count against Uruguay later today. Otherwise, regardless of what happens against Costa Rica on Tuesday, England's players will be joining their Spanish counterparts in Rio's departure lounge next week and be wondering how they're going to meet the eyes of a disappointed nation yet again.

Ever the optimist, though, 'I want to believe' and so will once again scream into the night like a deranged lunatic whilst casual observers watch on with a look of perplexed pity and wait for my sanity to return. I will scream as if Roy's boys can hear me this time, five thousand miles away in Brazil, and pray they make this nation proud. I'm hopeful they will and invite you all to do the same. Whatever happens, it'll be emotional. 

See you on the other side.


Before the Storm

The World Cup starts in Brazil today and I can't bloody wait. Thirty two teams from six continents will meet for the first time in four years and duke it out in the jungle for the title of Best Team in the World. The best in Asia and Africa will take on the best from America and Europe and every combination in between. For a self-confessed football obsessive like myself, the first two weeks will be nothing short of a joyous spectacle as my TV becomes wall-papered with live footage of the beautiful game in all its many forms.

How will the short passing tiki-taka style of Spain fare against the catennacio or 'doorbolt' philosophy of Italy or the witless blood & thunder that usually accompanies any performance from an England team? It's almost like a festival or holiday, and the fact it's only every four years makes it even more special. Add to that all the associated teams and fans mixing with the places and people of the host country in a fun and friendly festival and you arguably have the greatest sporting event on the planet. 

Not everyone feels this way though. For some, football is a boring sport they don't care for or understand. They see the World Cup as nothing more than a cluster bomb of shit that's about to explode all over their free time. They sit there and groan as they imagine all the mindless evenings they're going to have to sit through wishing they could bash their brains out against a rock instead, the means and measures they'll need to adopt to avoid becoming snared by such a situation in the first place.

They find the sport boring, which is fair enough I suppose. More often than that though, they're turned off by a sport that seems to attract more than its fair share of men with questionable attitudes towards race and gender, observing the way corrupt hooligans from all walks of life collect in shady gangs with the intention of wrecking havoc on the fabric of society and the game.

But enough about FIFA for a minute, most people are turned off by the ridiculous salaries accrued by the players and the questionable attitudes they sometimes develop as a result. No-one could fail to shake their head in bemusement and disbelief when they heard about the Man City player who demanded to leave the club because his Sheikh owner didn't buy him a Bugatti for his birthday. Or during the telling of any tale involving the disgraced ex-England captain John Terry

Hooliganism and racism still persist within dark pockets, but despite the best efforts of the administrators not to seem like they really give a crap, slow progress is being made. Certainly, in England, attending a football match is a much different experience to what it was thirty years ago and I can only hope that in another thirty, the stain of racist chanting and abuse that currently takes place in leagues across Europe will become a distant and fading memory.

But out of all the many reasons not to like football, the most understandable one is because of the bastards who run it. FIFA seems to regard itself as an organisation above the law, acting out of Sion as an autonomous state and bestowing tournaments on developing countries in return for lucrative backhanders before going on to saddle that country with crippling levels of debt and inappropriate infrastructure.

Much has been made of how all these stadiums will sit idle long after the event, tumbleweed literally rolling into goal mouths whilst shanty town swell up all around them. Recent reports from Qatar suggest that one worker dies there every day due to the appalling conditions that they are forced to work under in preparation for the corrupt World Cup in 2022, and in many cases, their roles would be better described as 'slaves' not 'workers'. This is a state of affairs that isn't only unjust and deplorable, it's insane.

However, this is a failing of humanity and in the minds of men rather than any specific by-product of football as a sport. Left to its own devices, football's a great leveller and one of the few forms of national pride that is usually, on the main, quite positive. Unlike club level, prestigious nations are limited by the quality of domestic talent at their disposal and because people are playing for their country, players genuinely care in a way that an overseas player playing in foreign leagues may not.

And unlike many other international sporting events like Cricket or Rugby, it's genuinely represented by every country across the world which helps emphasize how truly global the sport has now become. And, even better, whilst Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina usually make the front-runners (and do so this time), there's no easy games in international football any more and I'd argue there's possibly up to ten possible contenders for winners of the tournament this year. And whilst it's unlikely the USA, Chile, Ghana or Japan could go all the way, they are all examples of the type of teams who will make tough opposition for anyone and cause a few upsets.

Of course, predictions are hard and hindsight's a bitch. Many stars could be born this tournament but only a handful definitely will. Trying to identify them when there are so many other important factors at play that we remain unaware of (such as the mentality within the camps) means prediction is usually a mug's game, if still idly enjoyable. By looking into the stories behind each team and their various stories surrounding qualification, you get a better idea  what condition all the variables are in and who may be a better bet. But if you ask me, this World Cup looks to be the closest one in memory.

Brazil is a fascinating country, wild and vibrant and politically about ready to explode. They are usually the strongest team in this tournament, and coupled with the fact that they are hosts, you would have to say they are favourites. However, success isn't always guaranteed. Playing at home for the first time in sixty four years means the pressure will be intense and it'll be interesting to see how players deal with any possible set-backs like going a goal behind after ten minutes. Additionally, the demonstrations about FIFA and government corruption will happen. Bad or indifferent results from the national team could feed into this dynamic and vice versa. Leaving the politics of this aside for a moment – because sport really should be apolitcal - it would be a shame to see the carnival atmosphere become soured.

Back to the other teams, I think Germany, France and Spain will be the other main contenders for the title, with Colombia and Argentina pushing them all the way to the latter stages. I also think Croatia and Nigeria will have good tournaments and whoever qualifies top from group D will go far.

England's group is very hard to call, though, because Uruguay have strong pedigree and Italy - despite often appearing dull and unspectacular - have a habit of switching it on and are known as tournament specialists. Both will make for tough and experienced opponents and considering the English usually wilt in hot conditions, Roy Hogson's men have quite a challenge getting out themselves out the group. I'm hopeful because the potential within the England team going forward is the best it's been in years. But people have spoken about England and potential before.

The most notable thing about England this time around though is the public lack of expectation. The streets have have been exceptionally quiet, free from the usual fevered flag waving outside homes and shops and pubs and offices. The newspapers have stopped issuing those stupid plastic bowler hats with the colours of St.George on (probably for the best) and everywhere it is as though no one wants to speak about it too much, for risk of tempting 'all that's gone before'. Deep down, though, I think every Englishman is secretly hoping by pretending it isn't really happening until it is, we may alleviate the pressure on our players and finally do well.

That's how it works when you've been shit for so long; you start developing all kinds of inferiority bias and hope that will somehow serve you well instead. Or maybe that's just me. Anyway, considering how bad we've been on previous occasions, just some better football would be appreciated this time round so everyone can at least go home with their heads held high. The interesting things is with Barkley, Lallana, Sterling, Sturridge and Shaw, plus quite a few others, England may actually have the players to do that. For me, though, anything beyond the group stage would be a bonus.

Regardless of your view, however, I hope you can join me in wishing one thing for this World Cup. Well, two things actually. The first is that it all goes off peacefully and that everyone has an enjoyable time and enjoys some great football. The second is that by the end of it, through global pressure and persistent petition, Herr Sepp Blatter will do the decent thing and step down from his post so FIFA can put its house in order and restore its tarnished reputation. England probably have more chance of winning the World Cup than that happening, but still, we can dream, eh?

Imagine if both happened! In football parlance I think that'd be known around these parts as something of 'a result'. But maybe with a little bit of profanity thrown in there first.


Six Months In

Blogging is dead apparently, but before I try to resurrect the corpse of this one I may as well post some kind of update. And especially seeing as this year's nearly half way done.

Well, it's been interesting, 2014. The headaches that plagued last year are back, and at the minute, no-one can work out why. They fix on tight and move without pattern but the doctor seems happy enough to dose me full of drugs until she figures out the cause. Still, there's no 'red flags' which is a relief but life remains stuck in a state of limbo, everything hanging on how my head feels from one day to the next. I hope there's a diagnosis soon, because on the writing front, there's more than loads to be getting on with.

Yep, that's right; in more positive news I've managed to land some freelance assignments which were really challenging but immense fun to do. It's definitely hard, making a living from your words, but I really enjoyed it and remain hopeful of landing many more in the year ahead.

The Iron Gate, meanwhile, is still off stalking submission land, so it seemed like a good idea to press ahead with other things. So I did, and now the first draft of my second novel lies bloodied and in the bag. It's quite hard to pigeon hole but all I'll say at this stage is that it blends the boundary between horror and science fiction and is set in London, a few years in the future.

Now I can figure out how to get it published, as well as spend some more time on this blog after a year of neglect. The last twelve months have been really productive though, and with two novels done, not to mention all the freelance work, I don't think I've ever written quite so much in my life before. Or been quite so poor, or felt quite as happy.

I hope this means there's something new to show you soon. With a fair wind and all that, hoping so.



Mad dogs & Englishmen

Yeah, so it's been a bit quiet on these pages lately. I've been writing and editing but my friend's recent wedding saw me fly out to Seville for a few days so I did the decent thing and took some time for a look around. And what an amazing place it turned out to be, the old town even more beautiful than I'd expected. At every turn it was all stucco minarets and terracotta courtyards, alleyways that led into squares skirted by cafes and trees of orange blossom shrouding locals from the sun. And that was searing, even at the early start of spring. Each day woke us to perfect skies of powder-blue.

As the capital of Andalucia's, Seville has a rich and religious history and was once home to a controlling population of Muslims before Jews and then Christians came to settle behind the old castle walls. All these various eras mean the architecture of the old town is gloriously rich and varied in style but it's the global expositions (held in 1929 and 1992) that are responsible for many of the more remarkable landmarks seen around the city. From the Metropole in the centre to the ornate palace, fountain and boating park found at Plaza de España or the Hotel California-esque San Fernando that sits adjacent to a University lined with fountains and palms, Seville does not want for parks and interesting public space.

But as much as I enjoy wandering the streets in hot weather, I love swimming even more and so by the fifth day I was just about ready to over-heat. It was hard to tell if it was a delusion or mirage but my eyes spotted a water-park lurking on the outskirts of the tourist map that seemed to taunt me with its swirling graphic of a blue lagoon. The internet was down but we decided it was worth the risk and so began a hot and sweaty walk through the city and across the bridge to arrive at Isla Magica's gates. Ranks of workmen looked up from their work-mates from where they were sawing wood and painting gates.

Despite the heat, we had to keep being reminded it was early spring and the park was fully closed for maintenance and repairs. Indeed, many local sevillanos were walking around in jumpers - some had even taken to wearing coats. And so, thwarted by my own heating system and inability to find out information of any worth, I wiped my brow and asked the bemused manager if there was anything else that we could see around here, or get wet in. He looked uncertain but then pointed to the side of some empty offices. There was a staircase leading up to a walkway that dropped into bushes that hid a shabby green expanse. It seemed large, as though crowded in by darker shades of green. “It's a park,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “You can walk there.” He didn't need to add that no-one really bothered. Still, both of us had nothing better to do and so we crossed the road and immediately became lost in the once grand Jardines del Guadalquivir, again, unveiled at the expo in 1992, but now with no signs to mark their presence. And then we stumbled into the shadow of a huge row of structures that had haunted the skyline from the roof of our hotel and felt our jaws drop open. 

I've always loved the start of the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away when Chiciro and her parents stumble into the remains of an abandoned old theme park on the other side of a forest. Being a writer and into the whole process of world-building, parks and spaces of any kind (but especially theme parks) have always fascinated me because of the way they can make you feel. When lavished with cash and obsessive levels of maintenance, and depending on your own point of view, it's either like experiencing some kind of family utopia or some truly hellish idea of what an enchanting idyll should be. However, it's when these spaces don't go according to plan that I find the experience becomes more exciting.

Growing up in Nottingham I knew of two such places, Gulliver's Kingdom and The American Adventure, both of which were somewhere in Derbyshire and places I often visited as a kid. As these parks became more unloved (and then mothballed at the start of the early noughties) it was hard not to notice how the feel of them changed, mutating from the original ideal into something a lot more weird and strange. There was a sense of nature reclaiming what it'd lost, vines and knot-weed stretching up to strangle man's follies, his quaint period signs and talking cartoon figurines.

The Jardines del Guadalquivir isn't quite dead yet, just in what seems like a state of very slow and beautiful decline with the pillars of its bridges wrapped in graffiti and mad dogs running amok and down its flanks. Clouds of algae have colonised the water-gardens and weeds have broken through the concrete base of the viewing tower but what really struck me was the way that the grand monuments in the World Park near Seville stood so eerie and alone, like the abandoned totems of an advanced race long departed. Certainly, in this age of austerity, the idea of spraying around public cash on such global displays of vanity (only to then let them fall into ruin) seems quite alien. But that's not to say I wish they hadn't bothered. I felt quite the opposite, in fact.


The Iron Gate

There's an old saying that stories are never finished, only abandoned. There’s also another which says they’re basically like children: you put in so much time bringing them up but sooner or later they have to go out and make their own way in the world. People have a lot of sayings. I know of a mental health coach whose convinced himself that by taking a heavy beating at his weekly kick-boxing class, he’s training himself on how to deal with the ‘lows’ of life’s roller-coaster. He might be right. But for the sake of this blog, let’s just assume the first two sayings are correct.

Well, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve done all I can with this book now. It’s hard to let go of a project sometimes, especially one you love, but I’ve made last year’s objective, which was to re-write The Iron Gate entirely from scratch. And reading it back over, there’s no doubt it’s better for the effort. Whether it’s good enough is not for me to say. All I can do now is say good-bye to the damn thing and wish it all the best. And remember that my first novel is actually ready for release! I must say that after all these years of blogging and beavering away, it's exciting to announce.

So if you want to be a beta reader drop me a line. By next week, ideally, that’d be perfect. Just send me an email (found on my contacts page) and I’ll add you to the list. And I’d welcome any advice with regards to selling it, too. It’s hard to know how to approach it in the wake of the recent boom in self-publishing but you could also say there-in lies half the fun.


New Cross Gate

A squat woman limps down the street, lost inside a puffer jacket emblazoned with the word ‘SECURITY’ on the back. Little skids of dog shit cake the pavement beneath her feet whilst empty shopping bags flail behind her on the wind. She mumbles as you pass, talks of trying to find her ‘Thresher’ but you wish she’d find a safer place, somewhere warmer on the soul. You’ve lost your bearings amidst the walls of fly-posters that ask you to ‘save the NHS’, but you know the borough, the clutter and the after-taste. The main drag’s lined with betting shops and chicken boxes, converted super-markets where everything’s a pound whilst the University stands above it all, the ‘D’ missing from its sign. A man with an electronic dog-tag around his leg asks you for money and free papers are shoved inside your hand. We are entering recovery, apparently. You hope it’ll visit here.



One Very Important Thought



Blue is the hardest colour

It’s funny to think how things change. At the start of the year I was spending all my time on the Tube, suffering with various health problems and feeling pretty down about it. When I started to get constant migraines I decided life was too short and made a succession of changes. It's not been easy but in the intervening six months I’ve been writing and studying whilst working part-time as a builder.

It’s finger-breaking work but good for the soul and I’ve learned a lot about the trade. Boiling water is great for cleaning mortar off the inside of a mixer whilst blue is the hardest colour of cement when you’re using a drill to split it, hence the (rather tired) title of this post. It’s also given me a great deal of respect for builders because I can't seem to work for three days on the trot without walking around the house like Mick Jagger and my wrists completely seizing up. It seems that I’ve got delicate hands. Yeah, stop laughing at the back please...

Er, anyway, as explained elsewhere, work on The Iron Gate and my proofreading course is going really well and I’m looking forward to seeing both through to next year. I’d like to get the word count down a little more by January but considering I began writing it from scratch in August, I’m really happy with what I’ve accomplished so far. It’s definitely on schedule to be sent out to beta readers in March, so let me know if you’re interested and I’ll add you to the list.

Perhaps the best thing for me professionally was the publication of my story Union in Interstellar Fiction. It was a great honour to be associated with such a fine publication. Hopefully I can double the number of published stories in 2014. Union was actually finished some time ago so it’ll be interesting to see what people think of some of the more recent stuff I’ve been working on.

In all fairness, I’ve not read as much fiction as I’d have liked to because I've been caught up with doing research. This subsequently led to a binge which saw me take in all kinds of topics from economics to quantum physics, politics and everything in between. I must say that it's been a brilliant journey, mind-blowing in so many ways and I feel much more enlightened than I ever have before. What fiction I have read has been excellent though, Light by M. John Harrison being a favourite, Dark Eden by Chris Beckett being another. As far as films went, I loved Elysium and Gravity, the latter so much I had to see it twice, so in that respect I think the year has been good for science fiction.

So 2013: a big one in terms of change. I’ve been tested in numerous ways but I’ve also been blessed in an infinite number as well. It feels good to look back at how much I've seen and done. Now, when I look forward to next year I feel genuinely excited. Something tells me further change is yet to come. 

Until then, allow me to wish you all a relaxing festive season from up (or down) here in sunny Nottingham. I hope you all enjoy a Merry Christmas and see yourselves on to a very happy new year! 


The Final List: 2013

It’s that time of year again, folks. Yes, yet one more of those pointless album-of-the-year lists from another wannabe music journalist. Now, these aren’t the best of the year in any universal sense. More, just an opportunity for an anorak (me) to wax lyrical on everything he’s found of note in the last year or so. So if you’d please indulge me...

The first thing is to say it’s been a brilliant year, with more great albums than in the last three combined. There’s been a number of releases that I was unable to get my hands on - DJ Rashad being one of them - but overall I’ve been fortunate enough to catch up with most of what I wanted to and getting this number down to roughly ten was quite a job. On the whole I listen to quite a varied mix but it seems that in 2013 the lines between various genres became increasingly blurred. For example, Cult of Luna’s Vertikal ventured into progressive territory, Sigur Ros managed to go a little metal with Kveikur while Atoms for Peace, Death Grips and SZA all weighed in with records that sounded totally different to anything I have heard before. And it’s not very often you can say that!

If there’s been any disappointments, it would have been with the releases from the established acts of my youth. Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails all conspired to release real duffers in my opinion and that gives me no pleasure to say. They weren’t terrible, just very tired and lacking that crucial thing: good songs. Perhaps NIN were trying to do something a little different, and managed to make a couple of good stand out tracks so credit where it’s due, but overall all three sounded like very pale imitations of former past glories.

So, nasty bit over with, what was good this year? Well, like I said, loads. Worthy mentions that don’t quite make the list include Pelican’s latest Forever Becoming, Acid Rap by Chance and the previously mentioned albums by Cult of Luna and Sigur Ros. E.P’s don’t really count, but if they did Burial, SZA and Solange would all get much thought and consideration. Luca Brasi by Kevin Gates and Run The Jewels by El-P and Killer Mike were dark, excessive but fun. Both Moderat and Arcade Fire produced some interesting indie/dance crossover arrangements but didn’t maintain it over full albums in my opinion. Jay-Z, on the other hand, made an album that inhabited some kind of middle ground between light and shadow with some really great tracks sitting alongside some really naff ones.

So, The Final List then. It’s important to mention I can’t be arsed with numbering it any longer. There is no stand out winner this year anyway, they were all that strong. So, without further ado, these are my year’s choice cuts, the tunes that accompanied me whilst I committed thought crimes onto disk. Hopefully they don’t blow your speakers. Or end up getting you arrested.

Atoms For Peace – Amok

This is a mesmerising record. Previous works by Radiohead and Thom Yorke make much more sense now, what with that whole ambient/electronic percussion thing going on.

James Blake – Overgrown

Effortlessly building on the his debut, this guy is incredibly talented, winning the Mercuty Music Prize with his second effort which provided the soundtrack for 2013’s Winter That Ever Was.

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts

Definitely the best album cover of the year, if not the most original. It’s hard not to notice it staring at you from posters on the tube so I was intrigued and picked it up. Alternating between electro and soft balladry, his warm voice ties the eclectic sound together. The brooding darkness is counterbalanced by sensitivity and humour and makes for one of the most original albums I’ve heard in years.

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

I can’t stop listening to this. Pitch perfect, one of those albums you love more with every listen. Blissed out atmospherics, juicy bass-lines, seamless transition over eight awesome tracks. Possibly my favourite.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

A welcome return to form, this Scottish duo bought their retro/electro sound up-to-date and provided the soundtrack to a long, hot summer.

Arctic Monkeys – AM

This album both pushes new territory, brims with style and still manages to appeal to a large audience. Brilliant.

Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork

A slow grower, I thought they’d over-egged it to begin with. Certainly a more complex sound than their earlier efforts but I came to love it as much as those after a few listens.

Deerhunter – Monomania


Another change in direction from their previous, this time American punk & rock’n’roll.

Kanye West – Yeezus


The man with the gas-giant ego returns with an album that wasn’t always an easy listen. It did demand attention though, and Kanye’s genius ended up pulling me back in.

The Underachievers

The production (especially the Souls of Mischief sample in The Mahidi) and tight flow combined to make this my favourite hip-hop record of the year.

SZA – Ice Moon

Her EP - the first of a trilogy and entitled S - is described as glitter trap? I don’t really know what this means but I assume it alludes to her musical style, which is one part Bjork, two parts Dubstep and another part heavily dosed by the style of Erykah Badu. It’s sprinkled with samples from Rosemary’s Baby for goodness sake. Weird, but in a really good way. As for next year, apparently there's an album coming out from this guy. Enjoy!


File Corruption

Up to now, my ineptitude at proofreading has been the biggest thing holding me back. Don’t get me wrong, I consider myself to be (fairly) literate, but as anyone whose ever written will tell you, it’s amazing how many faults creep in to your own work when you become blind to seeing them. When more time was being spent failing to proofread than actually write, I finally decided it was time to take some kind of action.

So about six months ago, I enrolled in a proofreading and copy-editing course, and then went on to do a refresher class in English grammar and punctuation. It may sound strange, re-learning the rules of my own tongue and everything but I’m really glad I did. And now, after much chewing of pen-lids, the proofreading part of the course is just about done. It’s been fun, actually, much more than I thought. At times it's felt like I've been learning heiroglyphics.

The downside in telling you all this means that I can offer absolutely no excuses if you spot any errors from now on, but no matter! (I'll probably still try). All I need to do now is send the final assessment and wait for the results. My hopes are high. Regardless, I still feel I’ve learned a lot so in terms of my own development it’s definitely been worth it. The copy-editing stage is yet to come so more news as I get it. Fingers crossed...


Minus +

It’s not quite raining, nor is it fully dark. The sky's shade graduates from true to royal blue, freezing in transition over a dimly lit estate on the edge of town. The scent of death hangs in the air, from where the lane runs parallel with the Trent and they break down all the beasts and shit. You wait, on a deserted road within range with a single stop. The electronic sign says you have to wait two minutes but its being saying that for over ten. Chills spread down your marrow and you pull an expression like you’re sucking on a salt-stick. Frozen soles crunch on frost and broken glass and you make your move. Boarded-up shops take the place of bare fields after awhile and then you see the wall with a hole in it. There's a fair few pounds inside, an odd number. They’re not enough for what you need though, so you carry on your journey home, dreaming about burning down a house that you don't own.  



Novacon 43 – as the number would suggest – is the forty-third literary convention run by the Birmingham Science Fiction Group and took place this year at the Park Inn Hotel in Nottingham. It’s billed as an opportunity to hang with other science fiction fans and authors and is a place where you can listen to the usual panels and talks or check out the second-hand books auction and art fair.

Being a local and all that, I didn’t think there was much point in booking a hotel room so I just turned up on Friday night and then realized that I didn’t actually know anyone. Laser-sharp foresight, as usual. And then the old social anxiety kicked in. ‘Might have been an idea to have networked before you came,’ I thought to myself as I nursed my pint at the bar and tried not to look too self-conscious.

But then Julian Headlong and Ian Sorensen took pity on me and introduced themselves and from there on in, I had a great time. They gave me some handy pointers, introduced me to other fans and writers and by the end of the night I was speaking with Jo Walton and enjoying myself immensely. So I just want to say thank-you to everyone who took the time. I made some friends and it was a real pleasure to listen to all the talks about both science and fiction in such a warm, engaging atmosphere. I’m already looking forward to next year, although I probably won't be looking to get quite so drunk. Let’s just say that Saturday’s hangover was one of those gifts that kept on giving!