Friday 31 March 2017

The Poignancy of Old Pornography


I'm putting this warning here because it's one post, and I don't want to turn my whole blog into a click-to-enter site. So, if you continue reading, keep your cool.

My friend Tracey showed me this video when I went to visit her in Nairobi recently. She thought I might like it because I've been engrossed in researching photography for Still Life, and this has a lot to do with how photographs have influenced the way we document sex.

For my book, I'm actually interested in how we document death (and if you want to see something modern about that, and have a strong stomach, click here), but in watching this video I realised that the two subjects are extremely similar in terms of why we take photographs of taboo subjects.

It's a really well made short, and it helped me to articulate a few things I'd been thinking about. The more historical fiction I write, the more I realise that it is the similarity between ourselves and generations gone that we pay attention to. Our interest lies in how people similar to ourselves cope with circumstances that are very different. We focus on politics and war when writing historical fiction, but within that, we focus on ourselves as characters. My belief in difference left me when I started travelling. Yes, we live in different circumstances, and there are a few quirky ideas between cultures, but we share 99.5% of the same DNA globally and people are people. Africa isn't the Dark Continent, there was never a Golden Age. Peel back those illusions and it's not so difficult to connect across time and space.

The part about a photograph being 'a frozen moment in time, rescued from the dissolving force of the years,' plays a huge part in what I'm researching. There was a wonderful point, just before photographers discovered how to fix images, where you could make a photograph but the image itself would disappear after a few moments. You could watch that dissolving force at work even as you tried to preserve someone from it.

Thursday 30 March 2017

Haunted Futures

Huge shout out to my publisher Ghostwoods Books. Their latest anthology, Haunted Futures, just got a starred review on Publishers Weekly - which means they really liked it.

Jones has compiled a fascinating collection of 15 stories that explore the connections between the living and the dead... There is an entry for every speculative genre... and each story lives up to or exceeds its genre’s expectations.

You can find the full review here.

It is due for release on 2nd May, and you can find all preorder  options on the book's Ghostwoods page.

Wednesday 29 March 2017


A few months ago, I started a new hobby - piano tuning. It's since blossomed into mild insanity, and I now want to see if it's possible to build a piano in Rwanda. Yesterday, we started making the Indiegogo video by interviewing everyone involved and taking a look at the workshops where our piano will be born.

I've copied the post direct from my project blog, Kigali Keys. You can sign up to follow along by e-mail. I'm hoping that the video will be ready by the end of next week, and I'd hugely appreciate people sharing it once it is.


Meet Gaston.

We've just spent the entire day racing around Kigali filming the team who are going to try to build the first Rwandan piano.

It's been a long road to get here. My friends who were going to help me make the fundraising video suddenly found themselves in the centre of a personal housing crisis, so didn't have any free time. I met a fantastic guy from South Africa who's a really accomplished film maker, but he was a bit out of my price range. Then Gaston was recommended to me as he'd done an Indiegogo film for someone else. I was really impressed by his work and he was within my budget, so we're making it happen.

We started out with a return performance by Paco, who is one of Rwanda's foremost pianists. I asked him to come along to show what a piano is capable of. Even a fifty-year-old upright. Lirika is a 1968 Russian instrument, and she will provide the template for our own model, effectively becoming the mother of all Rwandan pianos.

It was a blazing hot day, so we were all sweating by the end of the interview. I slathered on sun lotion and we hopped motos (public motorbikes - main form of transport in Kigali) over to Karabona's workshop.


Alex Karabona is a Rwandan metal worker with a small foundry. Essentially, everything rests on him, because if we can't forge a string frame, we can't build a piano. All pianos have a string frame, or harp frame, inside, and some hold up to twenty tons of string tension. If it bends even a fraction, everything is lost. The first thing we'll do if we raise the money is take Lirika apart and give the frame to Alex to see whether he can recreate it. He's feeling confident, and he smiles all the time, so I'm confident that he's confident.

From there, we continued on to Desiré's workshop on the other side of town. Desiré is the carpenter who is going to try to figure out the piano action. If we can build both string frames and actions in Rwanda, we might be able to produce an affordable instrument. For every part we need to import, the price goes north. But along with the string frame, the action is extremely complicated. We won't know for sure that we can do it until we take Lirika's action apart. 


We had a very funny conversation when I asked whether Desiré had any jacaranda wood we could show, because I was hoping we could make the piano from jacaranda. It's very strong and very light in colour, which would make for naturally white keys without having to resort to plastic coverings. 

Desiré looked at me and said he didn't know what jacaranda was, but suggested we use umusave.

I didn't know what umusave was, but it looked right.

I said I liked it.

Gaston smiled and explained 'umusave and jacaranda are the same thing.'

Always reassuring when two people speak different languages but still understand what the other is thinking.

 Umusave/Jacaranda (left), Pine (right)
Both Locally Sourced

Finally there was me. Mostly I'll be trying to stay out of everybody's way, but I hope to rock up at the end to string and tune the new piano. I hate being in front of the camera, so we did my interview last, racing against the setting sun so that I didn't have too much time to think about it. Hopefully it'll be okay. We've got a few last things to shoot in town tomorrow to provide some filler for the video - make it recognisably Kigali. Hoping to have the finished short ready to roll next week. Watch this space. 

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Haepi Bookstore

Last month I wrote about this cute bookshop I bumped into below Ubumwe hotel in Kigali. Turns out it's run by Rwandan author Happy Umwagarwa who owns @Haepi_Bookstore. We've had a few back-and-forths via e-mail, but then I tuned into Twitter and completely wasn't expecting what I saw.

I really am extremely grateful to Happy. Not only running a lovely indie bookstore, but going out of her way to support and promote local and resident authors. It's bookshops like this that make all the difference to writers like myself. Hugely appreciated.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Greg Trooper

Carrying on from yesterday's post about Poet's Corner, a little more sad news.

My friend Suki is currently in New York for a celebration of the life and music of Greg Trooper (website/Wiki). As much as Poet's Corner was a part of our lives, so was Greg Trooper. Suki was a fan and friend, and dragged us along to see him play The Musician in Leicester. We all became firm fans.

Very sadly, he died of cancer on 15th January, two days after his sixty-first birthday.

All of his songs were wonderful, but my top ten are probably:

  1. Lovin' Never Came That Easy (Straight Down Rain)
  2. This I'd Do (Backshop Live and Live at the Rock Room, recorded Make It Through This World)
  3. I'm So French (Between a House and a Hard Place)
  4. Every Heart Won't Let You Down (Popular Demons) 
  5. Lucky That Way (Floating)
  6. When I Close My Eyes (Popular Demons)
  7.  Hummingbird (Floating) 
  8. Once and For All (Between a House and a Hard Place)
  9. Halfway (Between a House and a Hard Place)
  10. Dream Away The Blues (live version Backshop Live, recorded Make It Through This World)
You can find his albums on iTunes. The Backshop Live is my favourite. Really great live album, as is Between a House and a Hard Place. I can't seem to see it on iTunes at the moment, but if you can get hold of a copy it's excellent. There's also his fnal album, Live At The Rock Room, which I haven't heard yet, and there's a great live set uploaded on YouTube - Good Luck Heart.

Please buy his music, keep it alive.

About six years ago I took a trip back to Cardiff to catch up with some of the old gang. Caught up with a wonderfully pregnant Suki and a slightly less-hairy-than-before Gedge. It coincided with a Trooper concert. Suki couldn't go because of baby commitments, but I took dad along and Greg was good enough to sign a baby romper for the new arrival. Gone far too soon, but left some wonderful music behind, and a lovely message to all us artists trying to scrape a living.

Cardiff Crew

Saturday 25 March 2017

Poet's Corner

Ah, bejeezus.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

Just heard from my good friend Suki that one of our old haunts has been reduced to this...

It's a pub called Poet's Corner in Cardiff (formerly Tut 'n' Shive, formerly, formerly Poet's Corner). Affectionately known as PC's.

Many, many good times had there and at Y Mochyn Du. Mochy was the summer beer sipping venue, this was the heavy watering hole.

Before some numpty took a pot of varnish to it, the place used to have real character. The seating upstairs was an old Waltzer carriage, and there were fascinating facts painted all over the wall, like 'If you ironed out all the hills in Wales, it'd be bigger than England,' and 'This is the site of the old gallows.' There were still quite a few dead bodies in there, from what I recall.

It was the place where I overheard a conversation between two IT guys and drunkenly approached them shouting 'I need an IT guy!' Ended up hiring Gedge to network an office I managed, and so began a lifelong friendship. Suki was also working at that office, and the other IT guy with Gedge was Pete. Myself and friend Phil met their friend Mark, and the rest is a haze of alcohol.

It was a truly splendid few years, and PC's was a cornerstone of that. Even if, whilst walking home one night, I was accosted and lightly stabbed. But, small things.

PC's, I salute you. Line up a pint of Reverend and I'll drink it on the other side x




Thursday 23 March 2017


I'm resurrecting this from the time I spilt tea on my keyboard.

It has been a traumatic 24 hours. I was sailing happily along with Still Life. Coming along grand, when my new laptop of four months suffered a hard drive meltdown. Had to take it into town to get it fixed. They've reassuringly told me they can do it 'cost for cost'. I have no idea what the crap that means. It's still under warranty.

Whilst I wait to hear more, I've pulled my old laptop out of retirement. Funny story there - it has no battery (a funny story I'm not actually going to recount). As such, it works well - unless the power goes out. Then I lose everything.

On top of that, the keyboard no longer works, so I have to use a USB one that's chunky as hell. Got these big, fat nineteen-eighties keys. My brain rattles in my sleep. 

Between the high probability of hitting the wrong key every second word, and the very real possibility of losing the whole manuscript to an outage void, I'm giving writing a break until the other machine is fixed. Thankfully I backed up my writing to the cloud, and my external hard drive, just before everything went tits up. 

Being a writer without a decent keyboard is some special form of torture. I can't resort to pen and pad. My handwriting is so bad I might as well throw it into the outage void.

Now really is very bad timing.

After a particularly decadent night with friends, I've also decided to quit booze and cigs until the end of the month. This article made me laugh. I'm doing pretty well at the moment. Just got achy shoulders. That's either quitting or malaria. Find out soon enough. Though Dorothy Peel and Maysie Strang are my new heroines - boozing and smoking into their 100s.

“I decided to pack in smoking when I was 103 because I got bronchitis and the doctor warned me my life was in danger!" - Dorothy Peel

An inspiration to us all.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

The Author

Just a quick heads up. I have a brief article (including typo *hangs head in shame*) in The Author. It's a shaved down version of my regular ire over the lack of access to the international publishing scene faced by authors in countries without functioning online payment systems. But much briefer, and better edited.

Seriously. If you're a writer, join the union. 

Also, I'm teaching again in Kigali from next Friday. If you're in Rwanda, come join. If you're not, move to Rwanda. The beer's cheap, the weather is usually perfect and - gorillas. The Land of a Thousand Hills, inspiring a thousand stories.

Thursday 16 March 2017

Early Days

Just passed 12,000 on Still Life

Definitely starting to ease into this one, but get the sense it'll take a while to complete. I'm back to my 2,000 a day routine but it is taking me most of the day to get there because the research is so heavy. Only 12,000 in and I've already contacted more experts for this novel than for any other. Thankfully, they've all been extremely helpful. The acknowledgement page will be a long one.

There are always weird little coincidences that occur when I start writing. This has been no exception.

One of the characters that makes a cameo is Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of photography (far right in the picture).

Many years ago, just after I completed my undergrad, I moved into a house in Reading with a friend. It was Flat 3, 55 Baker Street. A very strange place as the bathroom was down a set of steps and the door to the bathroom had a slot in it. At one point it had been a home for unwed mothers and the peephole was so that the nuns could check the women were washing their babies correctly. Slightly creepy.

Anyway, its other claim to fame was that Henry Fox Talbot had lived there, according to the person who showed us around. He did indeed have a photographic studio on Baker Street, and I think the above picture was taken there.

I'd all but forgotten about it until I began my research. 

At the time, I had no idea who Fox Talbot was. It's sort of funny that I find myself writing about him all these years later.

Another fun coincidence when I was looking up early exposure times

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Signature Dish

Just been signing some copies of Rosy Hours, something I haven't done in a while. They're now on sale in my home away from home, CasaKeza in Kigali.

Sunday 12 March 2017

Mapping Africa

Well, I've put down a tentative 5,000 words on Still Life. Just feeling my way and starting to sense the characters.

Very uncertain about the telling of this one.  I sat down and attempted to plot, but that really doesn't work for me. There are moments and images I know need to be in there somewhere, like stepping stones, but the current between those stones flows in its own direction.

I like the way Stephen King puts things: it's not about plot but situation.

If the situation is interesting, the characters will rise to circumstance in interesting ways.

It's a bit of a hairy scary one this, as it's split between the very modern day and a large chunk of Victorian England, from as far back as the 1820s up to the 1880s. 

It can be a bit daunting to develop a character from long ago. I frequently extol the virtues of Wikipedia. There's the practical aspects of character development, for instance the ages of your characters have to match up across a lifetime. You can't have a character who was six in 1922 and a father by 1925. That sort of obvious stuff. But then comes the fun part. You have your clay structure, but now it needs features - a history and a personality.

One of the simplest ways to begin this process is to pick a point in the character's life and Wiki that year. For example '1814' or '1814 in the UK'. That presents you with a smorgasbord of possibilities. Events that your character might have been involved in, scientific discoveries, exhibitions, wars, as well as the births and deaths of people in that year. Deaths, especially prominent ones, could often affect the public psyche.

Unfortunately with Wiki, one link always follows the next, and you can easily lose a couple of days chasing more information on whatever has caught your eye. But I like this form of research. You find yourself learning all sorts of facts about things you probably never heard of before.

Thanks to this character building slapdashery, I found myself writing about a long-forgotten British military defeat in West Africa. Anything that occurs on a continent over a hundred years ago needs to be approached with great care, because what we call places today is rarely what they were once called. To keep things authentic, characters need to stick to the language of their time.

Living in Rwanda, it was really interesting to look at old maps of Africa and see how they have changed over the centuries. How, in the 1500s, Rwanda may have been part of the Kingdom of Melinde, and how in the early 1700s right through to the mid 1800s it was in 'unexplored territory,' once referred to as Ethiopia (at the time, the entirety of Central Africa). Colton's Map of the World from 1852 is a good one, which you can zoom right in on.

These were the names given by colonists, and The Book of Negroes has some really poignant points on the importance of maps and place names.

It's interesting as well when you start to study tribal history within Africa, as I did when I became interested in the Congolese masks you find in a lot of the craft markets here. You get the sense that a lot of the masks date back centuries, but the histories of many tribes are much more recent. Although people like the Luba had an advanced Iron Age civilisation, there was mass migration, especially from North to South and West to East, around 200 years ago, such as the Maasai and Chokwe, with tribes splitting and forming new groups, such as the Lulua and Kusu. If colonists hadn't been so busy slapping their own names on things, it would have been extremely interesting to have accurately documented that.

I'm not actually sure when Rwanda fist appeared on a map, but apparently it was the first country in Africa to get on board with Google Maps.

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Voynich Manuscript

If you've got a spare £6,000 you could soon own a faithful reproduction of the Voynich Manuscript, a 240-page medieval book that no one has ever been able to decipher. After ten years, Spanish publisher Siloe has won the right to print it. Find out more here. If you don't have a spare £6,000, you can find it free online. And if you just want to read more gobbledygook, check out the online Library of Babel.

Saturday 4 March 2017

Still Life

Well, I've had a lovely month off. Having finished the first edits on Wolfish and Creeper's Cottage in January, I've been enjoying birthday treats and travels since then. I'm not ready to start writing again yet, but I have begun the research for my next novel.

I'm returning to historical fiction with a story split between Victorian Bristol and the modern day. I'll go into more detail about it once I actually start writing, but it's all about photography.

That's all I can say for now. 

It's going to be quite hard going, because - until recently - I didn't think I was particularly interested in the history of photography, or in photographic techniques. Thanks to a very interesting man who has helped with the research, I have since revised my opinion on that. It is actually quite fascinating and oddly spiritual.

Another part that I'm not so enthused about is Victorian England. It's never been a genre that really spoke to me, except perhaps Pullman's Ruby in the Smoke series. Loved those.

Considering how little enthusiasm I have for Victorian England or photography, I must admit, it's a little odd to write a book about photography in Victorian England. This may prove to be an absolute failure, however there is a little something beneath the setting that keeps calling to me. We never start by thinking 'Right, I want to tell a story about this, in this place and time, with these characters, and this is what is going to happen...' Rather, the grain of an idea gets caught in our thoughts and we can't rest until we explore where it goes. There are many possible stories to be told, but a quality to those that won't go away. The ones you think you'll forget but still find yourself thinking about a year later.

I would never have chosen this story, but it seems to have chosen me.

The working title is Still Life. It does need a better one, but not right now.

Now, the important part is the research. Whenever I write historical fiction, I immerse myself in the period for a few days. I read and watch everything I can on the matter, and then I stop. Once I feel I have a good grasp on the period, I switch to thinking about the story - looking up details as and when they are needed. You do need to be accurate when you reference the era, but you don't want to start referencing the era just to get everything you've learnt in there. It's a novel, not a history book. Although dress, food, fashion and customs change throughout the ages, the core of human beings is fairly constant. I think that's why we like historical fiction, because it reminds us of this fact. We can empathise with ourselves throughout the centuries.

The way I begin researching is usually with Wikipedia and a simple Google search for the time period or place. One of my greatest tools is Word's Speak function. I copy/paste text from the sites into Word and have the programme read it back to me. Sometimes the sheer quantity of text can feel overwhelming, so this allows me to make a cuppa, lie on the couch or even brows the next piece whilst listening. I also look for YouTube documentaries and picture archives. I'm very grateful to  Paul Townsend for his Flickr collection of Victorian Brizzle. When I face more specific questions I contact archives and societies, and occasionally professionals, to ask for information. Most are usually extremely helpful.

One thing I really needed was the name of a photography or camera supply shop in Bristol in the 1860s. Et voila! Names and addresses.

So, on with the next project. It usually takes me five to nine months to write a novel once the research is done, but I get the sense this one may take longer. It's not going to be an easy write, but hopefully a rewarding one.