Wednesday 26 January 2022

Short Story Reading: Mother of Words

Back in May I posted about winning the Bet Tuppi Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize. I've just got a better microphone so rerecorded the reading. You can listen to the story above, or go to the beginning of the video to get some background.

Sunday 23 January 2022

The Devil Rides Out

One of those books you grew up hearing about in popular culture, but never read. 

A classic of the horror genre, Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out pits the powers of good against the forces of evil as the Duc de Richelieu wrestles for the soul of his friend with the charming but deadly Satanist, Mocata. Mocata has the power to summon the forces of darkness and - as the Duc and his friends will find - is willing to call upon ever-increasing horror until thundering hooves herald the arrival of the Devil Himself. The book was also made into a classic cult horror film in 1968, starring Christopher Lee and Charles Gray.

I'm a horror fan, so I knew I'd get around to this eventually, but I'm not quite sure what I expected going into it. I guess something a little James Herbert, perhaps. 

I found it a little tough going, and I think maybe it's one of those books best read in tree format on a dark winter's evening in an attic. The audible version was all right, but seemed a smidge caricaturish. I cringe slightly when male narrators do an overly dramatic, high-pitched female voice. It distracts from the story. 

You can certainly see where he got his inspiration from, using Aleister Crowley as research. Crowley the person was interesting, there's a good biography on him by Martin Booth titled A Magick Life, but as a fiction author (Diary of a Drug Fiend) he wasn't a thrill a minute. I admit I'm a bit biased on this subject. I have a modest but fairly good quality occult book collection, so I'm fairly immune to the sensationalism surrounding it. The books on High Ritual Magic and Thelema are truly bedtime reading, full of long lists, tables and charts. I was very briefly a neophyte in the OTO in my teens, but kept forgetting the Hebrew and couldn't stomach sitting uncomfortably for hours.

This, by the way, wasn't Satanism. It's strongly based on Judeo-Christian religion and Qabalism, with invocations and evocations, but, in itself, it isn't Satanism. And Pagans and Heathens generally aren't Satanists because in order to be a Satanist you have to believe in God, the Christian version, very ardently. That tends to rule out British Pagans, although every polytheist religion has some form of dark ritual, even Buddhism. But Satanism is specific to Judeo-Christian practices, or hybrid practices such as African-diasporic religions and Chaos Magic. As you'll know from my novel Rosy Hours, the word shaytan is actually Middle Eastern, from Iranian folklore, meaning a form of jinn or hungry ghost. Christianity stole wholeheartedly from ancient Mesopotamian folklore, right down to the dimensions of Noah's ark

Anyway, splitting hairs, but... there was just nothing particularly chilling about this book. It was so melodramatic and over the top that it didn't hook my imagination. I enjoy graphic, blood-spattered horror when it's done well, but psychological thrillers are even better. The quiet type of horror that creeps up on you in the dark. The spider watching from its web. The stuff that's believable, and subtle and inescapable. This was less Stephen King and more the film adaptation of Rosemary's Baby. (I haven't read the novel of Rosemary's Baby, so I can't comment on that). But it's very much of an era. Nothing subtle about it. 

I drifted a bit towards the end and can't fully recall what happened, but one thing sticks with me like a vivid dream. Very early on, de Richleau (great name, by the way) and his companion break into their friend's house through the cellar. To silence their footsteps, de Richleau suggests that they take off their socks and pull them over their shoes. At first, this sounds like a genius idea, but it's been going round and round in my head ever since. Can you fit the average pair of socks over your shoes? If you can, how do they stay up when you're wearing them? Did everyone wear wool socks back then, and were they particularly stretchy? 

Answers by psychic message, or drop a comment below...

Friday 21 January 2022

Fantasy Author Panel

If you enjoy fantasy and fairytales, you might enjoy this live discussion of authors sharing their process. My friend Margaret Pinard has a really active Authortube channel worth following. 

Tuesday 11 January 2022

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija

Disturbing developments in Uganda.

Ugandan satirical novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, who was named International Writer of Courage by PEN last year, has been illegally detained and tortured for criticising the president and his son, his lawyer said.

Gunmen came to the writer’s house on 28 December after a series of tweets about the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, including one calling him a thief and his son and presumed successor “an incompetent pig-headed curmudgeon”.

In his last tweet Rukirabashaija said he was under house arrest and the men were entering by force. He has not been able to contact his lawyers since then, and no charges have been brought.

Read full Guardian article and open letter by PEN International.

Very disturbing but not unusual for Museveni, who has previously detained children as political prisoners. How thin-skinned do you need to be to torture someone for calling you a curmudgeon? Let's hope for a speedy release. 

Monday 10 January 2022

William Pitt The Younger


I hesitated over this for quite a while, as I really detest the style of politics that William Hague represents. However, I do like a bit of history and I must grudgingly admit that he did an excellent job of telling this particular part of it. 

William Pitt the Younger is an illuminating biography of one of the great iconic figures in British history: the man who in 1784 at the age of twenty-four became (and so remains) the youngest Prime Minister in the history of England.

In this lively and authoritative study, William Hague himself the youngest political party leader in recent history explains the dramatic events and exceptional abilities that allowed extreme youth to be combined with great power. The brilliant son of a father who was also Prime Minister, Pitt was derided as a schoolboy when he took office. Yet within months he had outwitted his opponents, and he went on to dominate the political scene for twenty-two years (nineteen of them as Prime Minister). No British politician since has exercised such supremacy for so long. Pitt's personality has always been hard to unravel.

Though he was generally thought to be cold and aloof, his friends described him as the wittiest man they ever knew. By seeing him through the eyes of a politician, William Hague - a prominent member of Britain's Conservative Party - succeeds in explaining Pitt's actions and motives through a series of great national crises, including the madness of King George III, the impact of the French Revolution, and the trauma of the Napoleonic wars. He describes how a man dedicated to peace became Britain's longest-serving war leader, how Pitt the liberal reformer became Pitt the author of repression, and how - though undisputed master of the nation's finances - he died with vast personal debts.

So, yes, Pitt the Younger (son of Pitt the Elder) was - and still is - the youngest prime minister ever to hold office, becoming so in 1783 at the age of 24. Quite a fascinating figure, and one who presided over some extremely turbulent times in British history, including wars, financial crises and manoeuvring the madness of King George. 

He was in favour of Catholic emancipation in Ireland and allowing Catholics to sit in Parliament, and the abolition of the slave trade, giving the speech:

We may now consider this trade as having received its condemnation; that its sentence is sealed; that this Curse of mankind is seen by the House in its true light; and that the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed, is about to be removed! - William Pitt on Abolition

Though he was criticised in later history for moving too slowly on the latter. The slave trade was abolished in Britain and her colonies in 1807, but it would take another 26 years before slavery itself, and the ownership of slaves, followed suit. Both the Catholic and slavery issues had to contend with the will of the king, opposition sentiments and lengthy periods of war, which took precedence at that time. He was a contemporary of Wilberforce, who eventually managed to put abolition front and centre after Pitt's death, and who died the same year that the abolition act was passed, in 1833. 

There's quite a bit of speculation over Pitt's sexuality, as he never married or appeared to have relations of any kind. The newspapers at the time picked up on this, but Hague postulates that he was perhaps a-sexual, although he does so with the slightly odd line that his sexuality, or lack of it, is 'perhaps one example of how his rapid development as a politician stunted his growth as a man.' Um... okay. 

So, fascinating historical facts that I learned from all of this...

  1. Sweden once invaded Russia. (I think they did it a few times as part of allied forces in later wars).

  2. On 23rd of January 1795, a fleet of Dutch military ships found themselves completely ice-bound, allowing French military to surround and capture them, thus making them 'the first ships in the history of warfare to surrender to a force of cavalry.'

  3. The last time that England was invaded was 1797 at the Battle of Fishguard, where 1,400 French troops landed at Ilfracombe in Devon and Fishguard in Pembrokeshire. 

  4. Also in 1797, Pitt created £1 and £2 paper money for the first time, lowering the previous minimum note of £5 as a way to avoid an economic crisis.

  5. Pitt is also the inventor of income tax in 1798, which he introduced to try to raise ten million pounds a year for the government during war time. It was a temporary measure at the time, but was reintroduced permanently in the 19th century by Robert Peel, and forms the basis of the tax system we know today. Today, we have a tax-free threshold of £12,570 but when it was first introduced that was £60, then 1/20 up to £200, and 1/10 over that. 

Fascinating stuff. Hague has also written the biography of William Wilberforce, so I might look into that at some point.

Friday 7 January 2022

Red Roulette


I picked this up after watching 60 Minutes with the author, Desmond Shum.

As Desmond Shum was growing up impoverished in China, he vowed his life would be different. Through hard work and sheer tenacity, he earned an American college degree and returned to his native country to establish himself in business. There, he met his future wife, the highly intelligent and equally ambitious Whitney Duan who was determined to make her mark within China’s male-dominated society. Whitney and Desmond formed an effective team and, aided by relationships they formed with top members of China’s Communist Party, the so-called Red Aristocracy, he vaulted into China’s billionaire class.

Soon they were developing the massive air cargo facility at Beijing International Airport and they followed that feat with the creation of one of Beijing’s premier hotels. They were dazzlingly successful, travelling in private jets, funding multi-million-dollar buildings and endowments and purchasing expensive homes, vehicles and art. But in 2017, their fates diverged irrevocably when Desmond, while living overseas with his son, learned that his now ex-wife Whitney had vanished along with three co-workers.

In Red Roulette Desmond Shum pulls back the curtain on China’s ruling elite and reveals the real truth of what is happening inside China’s wealth-making machine. This is both Desmond’s story and Whitney’s, because she has not been able to tell it herself. 

Many people living in Africa are interested in China, as it's the largest continent-wide development investor. Most of Rwanda's roads and large buildings have been built by Chinese construction companies, but it does seem to come with some strings. YouTuber Johnny Harris did an interesting video on it:

So, the builders bugged the African Union servers and then, when they were discovered, they offered to replace them with more servers! Wow. 

There's also an interesting one about China buying up the world's shipping ports. Which is a topic that gets talked about a bit in East Africa, after it was rumoured that China made a loan to Kenya that, if not paid back, would result in the port of Mombasa becoming Chinese owned. This resulted in Kenyan authorities assuring the public that this couldn't happen, but the fact it was so widely believed is interesting, and does rather make it look like China's following the age-old pattern of Western colonisers by trading money for... well, absolutely everything you have. 

China also became a particularly interesting topic in Rwanda with the Chinese treatment of the Uyghur, which has been condemned by human rights organisations and ruled as a genocide last month. This is tricky for a country such as Rwanda, where so much infrastructure has been paid for and built by China, but which has a strong and very public stance against genocide due to its own history. It was due to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that rape was classified as a war crime. 

So, tricky all round, especially since the UK disbanded DFID in 2020 and, like other Western countries, greatly reduced its spending on international development. International aid has long been used as a tool for political gains and manipulation, and this isn't going to change in a capitalist system that only works when some countries are rich and others poor, but at the same time, China's brand of communism, as mentioned in the book, is a thick, soupy blend of communism and capitalism, with a lot of politics thrown in. 

Anyway - the book. It was engrossing to hear about China from a former Chinese elite insider, but it was a little hard to sympathise at times. He spoke of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on cars, international hotels, wine tasting tours and business transactions. Not something I can relate to. And, although the biography was extremely honest, it felt perhaps a smidge derogatory towards his ex wife in places. She is currently disappeared by Chinese authorities and no one's sure if she's alive or dead, but if she's alive, and if she reads this, it would be interesting to hear her perspective. I think she might have a few things to say about it. 

But, overall it was interesting. It sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare trying to run a business. The book did seem to focus a huge amount on how they built the business up and only on what went wrong and the disappearance at the very end. I would have liked to hear more about the impact of that, and about life for ordinary citizens and how common disappearances are - or not. It's been a big talking point in the British news lately after Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, disappeared after accusing a former vice premier of sexually assaulting her. This seems to have faded from consciousness ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

It's all just a bit depressing. I spent most of last year with my face pressed to the screen, absorbing The Untamed. Even got the T-shirt. I'd love to go see the set. It looks like a stunningly beautiful country and so many things to go and see and enjoy, but the lack of free expression, combined with the treatment of the Uyghur, bugging the African Union, disappearing citizens and horrific rights abuses in Hong Kong, leaves a pretty bitter taste behind. Their approach to international development really seems to be working and it's providing Africa with a huge amount of infrastructure, but what's the end game? And, with politicians, there always is one. 

Anyway, the book provided an insight into a world most readers will never experience, and gave another angle on what's going on in China at the highest levels and at this moment in history. For a historical overview of life for ordinary citizens, I highly recommend Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, and a nice read called Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong which tells the story of a first-generation American girl in the 1940s, reconciling a traditional Chinese upbringing with the individualism of America. These three books combined give an interesting overview of China through the ages.

Saturday 1 January 2022

Oath, Boast, Toast 2021


Well, it's that time of year again. Seems to come around quicker each time. 

That was a long slog, right?

For those new to the blog, each New Year I do a very Pagan oath, boast and toast. That's where I make a promise (or a resolution), boast about something I'm proud of, and toast the health of something or someone. 

This time last year I made the oath that I would enter one writing competition every month. Didn't do great at keeping that one. I made it up to September. I entered 11 competitions total, one poetry, one essay, the rest short stories. I spent a total of £40.25 on entry and made back £50 in prize money, so not at all profitable, but it kept me on my toes. I won that on the Bet Tuppi Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize and publication through a Bridge House Publishing competition. I was also longlisted for another, but didn't make the shortlist. I enter for the entertainment value, and any unpublished stories can go into a collection at a later date. 

It's been a distraction from my Akkad novel, which I did complete, but which I'm struggling to edit. It's the longest novel I've ever written at over 160,000 words at the moment. I hope, by this time next year, it will be fully polished and perhaps even out there.

Main highlights and horrors of the past twelve months:

  • In the past couple of weeks, I lost my friend Emmy. Who was a huge part of my life in Rwanda and I will feel his absence for years to come. He was such a genuinely lovely guy who went out of his way to help his friends and make other people's lives easier. Really going to miss him.

  • I completed two semesters as head of Writing and Communication at the University of Global Health Equity, teaching academic English and creative writing. I designed and delivered both curriculums, adapting the courses for online learning during COVID. It was a privilege to be involved and very interesting. 

  • I turned 40 in February. Had a lovely celebration and spa day with my close friends. My mum had been working with them covertly to arrange everything. I feel pretty good about being 40. Doesn't feel noticeably different to 39.

  • Had a lovely start to last year at Lake Muhazi with my friend Maia. Went for a boat ride and a walk, lit a bonfire and ate cake. 

  • Nyarigongo volcano erupted, causing several gays of strong tremors. 

  • I learned to make soap and found some very creepy caterpillar webs in my mango tree.

  • Took the plunge on YouTube. Being in front of a camera isn't that comfortable for a writer, but I think I've got the bug. Bought an Insta360 One x2 and plan on making some travel videos around Rwanda when I return. Got a laptop that can keep up with DaVinci and even 4k, though maybe not an internet connection that can do the same. 

  • And, finally, made it back to the UK to spend Christmas and New Year with family. Went to the Lake District with dad and ate myself into a coma with mum. Got everyone doing ancestry DNA testing and discovered... well, I'll reveal that in a YouTube video soon. 

So, without further ado:


This year, I am going to pursue creative projects that I enjoy. I am going to turn down things that don't make my soul sing. 

(Easier said than done sometimes, all creatives know what I mean).



I won the inaugural Bet Tuppi Near Eastern Historical Fiction Prize.



To Emmy. My dear friend. Thank you for everything. May your next life be full of adventure and joy.