Wednesday 29 December 2021

Eight Book Reviews


Looking for some holiday reading? Here are eight of my book reviews that may prick your interest.


Arkansas by David Leavitt

David Leavitt has always been an interesting short story and novella writer, here is a collection of three of his novellas that are more than worth a read.


London Urban Legends by Scott Wood

I have always been fascinated by urban legends and so it appears has Scott Wood. This was the perfect read on my journey to and from work, on the London Underground..


The House of Stairs by (Ruth Rendell writing as) Barbara Vine

For many years I lived in Notting Hill, London, where this novel is set, and it turns on the head the convention of the crime novel.


From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell

During the summer, I realised I had not read Ruth Rendell’s first novel, so I did. All great writers must start somewhere.


The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

I first read this novel as a young teenager, when I found it very frightening. I reread it as an adult and found it uncomfortably disturbing. It is still thought-provoking now.


Logical Family: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin

SPOILER: One of the best things Armistead Maupin has written.


Liverpool Murders - Kirkdale Hangings 1870–1891 by Steven Horton

So much true crime literature is sensationalist, moral-panic writing or just plain voyeuristic. This book isn’t and it is fascinating for being so.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

SPOLIER: One of, if not the best novels Philip K Dick wrote.


Tuesday 21 December 2021

Based on Real People


I gave you good script,” Ma to Alan

Cocktail Sticks, a play by Alan Bennett


The writer Alan Bennett has been very open about how much he is inspired by real-life events. He has written plays and film scripts all inspired by real-life events; he has written several volumes of autobiographical essays, and every year or so he publishes extracts from his diary. I’ve seen and read all of them and enjoyed them so much. In his autobiographical play Cocktail Sticks, about his relationship with his parents, the character of Ma (based on his mother) says, “I gave you good script,” meaning he has used so many of the actual things she said in his writing.

I cannot class myself in the same writing league as Alan Bennett, but I take so much inspiration from real-life events. That inspiration seems to fall into three different types.

The first is when I want to write about events or attitudes that have made me angry or upset. This is when I use fiction to explore how I feel about a subject or when I want to write about attitudes in order to expose the negative/destructive nature of them. My short story I Always Knew is an example of this. It was the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal and I heard an elderly journalist on the radio saying that he’d always known about Savile’s crimes. My anger led me to explore that attitude, those people who are always “wise” after a tragedy, in this story.

Secondly, I can find inspiration in news headlines and real events. Sometimes it a headline and a short news item that inspires my imagination. I don’t do anymore research, instead I let my imagination dwell on those sparse descriptions or even single event and then I fill out the events and with characters I’ve created. Without researching the events any further I can make sure I am not using the people and their tragedy for my own fiction, that my story is a complete work of fiction. A Family Christmas is an example of me using this type of inspiration. There was a mass shooting in America, on Christmas Eve, the year before I wrote this story. I learnt no more about that tragedy but my imagination filled in the blanks and I created a story that explored a theme that leapt out at me from this tragedy.

I don’t always search out stories of death and tragedy, all kinds of things in the media can set my imagination off running. I read an interview with the actor Russell Tovey where he said a throwaway comment, but that comment set my imagination off. The result was the story That One Big Role.

I have also been researching historical events for a series of stories. These take a lot more research and less of my imagination filling in the blanks, though some of that is still needed. With these stories I want to examine a historical event from a fictional character’s point of view, find the human story inside the facts. These stories do take a lot of work, but I don’t want to stop writing them, the research is fascinating. The Trial of the Century is the first one in this style I wrote.

Thirdly, I find inspiration from my own life. It can either be just one small factor that I then spin off into a whole story, or else it can form a larger part of a story, or else I fictionalise something that happened to me as a way to explore what and why that thing happened.

Boxing Day 1975 is a short story of mine that was inspired by one event from my life. When I was a young child, on Boxing Day, together with my family I watched the big film on television that evening, One Million Years BC. That was the only part I took into the story, it is certainly not based on my own family but I do vividly remember how my family all sat down together to watch the same television film.

I met my first boyfriend in 1987 but our relationship did not last. Our break-up was different, difficult and not that conventional. I used that break-up scene, almost word-for-word from real life, as the opening scene of my story Out ofthe Valley. I used this story to explore obsessive love and not being able to let go of an ex-lover, none of which was my reaction to the end of that relationship, though this story did go through many rewrites over the years with the wish-fulfilment ending being quickly dropped.

Then there are those real-life encounters that play on my mind and imagination and form the bases of some of my stories. Jonathan Roven Is Lost (a story in my collection Case Studies in Modern Life) is a story that started off in that way. Through my job, I saw the effect dementia has on the partners of those people with it. My blog here gives a much fuller picture of how that story was created.

For me, there isn’t just one way that I find inspiration, but I guess that is the same for so for many writers, but using inspiration and facts from real life is very important to me, I want my stories to have that taste of authenticity.

I don’t use overheard dialog in my writing, like many writers do, because the few times I’ve heard anything decent I’ve forgotten the actual words by the time I get home. But I do use real people in my writing or people’s attitudes and beliefs. I don’t use direct copies of people; I don’t feel comfortable if readers can easily identify the person who was the inspiration for a character. So often I combine different things from different people—the attitude from one person, the clothes style from another and the physical appearance from another. But what really fascinates me are people’s attitudes and beliefs and how they affect their lives and how people’s personalities react in different situations.

For me, I find inspiration in so many different ways, so many different things can spark and inspire my imagination, but in the end it is my imagination that forms the story from whatever the inspiration is, though I always work to create authenticity in my fiction. I hope my stories bear that out.

I do remember one of the classic things my mother said, though I have never found the right story to use it in.


I was in my early teens and had just come home from school one afternoon and my mother was unpacking her shopping.

“I won’t buy anymore lemonade, all you lot ever do is drink it,” my mother said.

“What should we do with it, wash in it?” I said.

“You know what I mean,” she told me. And I did.


Happy reading


Thursday 16 December 2021

Waiting for the Postman


It was a love affair, carried out by letters and parcels, though the love was all on my side. I would wait, with both excitement and anticipation, for each new delivery, some of which would take weeks to arrive.

Aged eighteen, in suburban Liverpool, in the early 1980s, I had little chance of finding any queer literature. The big chain bookshops in the city centre only sold bestsellers and mainstream books. The independent bookshops sold the same bestsellers and sentimental books on local history. I was starved for any gay literature; I was desperate for anything that reflected my sexuality, which showed me how gay life was lived. I would search the Central Library, Liverpool’s large city centre library, for any books with gay content, even if they were just minor characters or slight themes. I read so many offensive and homophobic books in that search.

Almost by accident I fell upon a copy of Gay Times magazine, it was tucked away amongst the top shelf porn magazines in a rundown newsagent up near Liverpool’s two cathedrals. Almost with a nervous twitch, I bought it. It was only when I got it home and I was safely on my own that I started reading it.

What leapt out at me, amongst all the other things within its pages, was a mail order service from the Gay’s The Word bookshop in London. They offered only gay books, several of which were mentioned elsewhere in the magazine.

With excitement, I filled out the order form, choosing two novels, writing a cheque to pay for them, sealing it all up in an envelope and posting it off. Then I waited. Nearly two weeks later, my parcel arrived, wrapped in plain paper, and inside were my two new novels. With glee I started to read both of them right away, ignoring all the other books I’d been reading.

Soon this became my routine, each month I would send off my order and wait for my parcel of books to arrive. The anticipation of waiting for those books was sometimes greater than the thrill of receiving them, but I was always excited when my parcel arrived.

At first, I ordered gay romantic novels, stories where handsome men would meet and fall in love, eventually living happily ever after. They were fantasies, but I wanted that fantasy. I was deeply closeted, living in a strongly homophobic environment, and those romantic novels held the hope that one day I could find a lover and live happily ever after. I lapped them up, even with their poor plots and stereotyped characters.

As the months passed by, though, my tastes began to expand. Gay’s The Word made book recommendations and Gay Times had its own book review section. I started to read contemporary gay novels, discovered the crime novels of Joseph Hanson (his portrait of California was so different from that of Hollywood), novels of gay life in 1980s England, and many coming out stories.

I also began to read non-fiction books, I started with self-help books on how to be a Happy Homosexual but I soon moved away from them because of their very simplistic views. Quickly I moved on to biographies and historical studies of gay life. What did it mean to be gay in Victorian London? What was the Gay Liberation Front? Was there a gay scene before 1960? I read all those books with a voracious appetite. This was a world that had been hidden away from me.

As those books kept arriving for me, I began to wonder where they were coming from. What did the Gay’s The Word bookshop look like? It must have been a huge bookshop judging by the variety of stock they carried. I imagined that it stretched over several floors of a big, brightly light book superstore; all smooth, laminated bookshelves, polished floors and assistants who all wore name badges telling the world who they were. I imagined it was a great palace of gay literature, where I could simply lose myself in the pleasure of buying a book.

At nineteen, I began to explore the tiny gay scene that Liverpool had to offer back then. Even as I did this, I still relied on those parcels of books from Gay’s The Word. Those books were still such a large part of my life. They were my main entertainment, but they also offered me information and consoled me when my adventures in gay life flat-lined.

At twenty-one, I finally moved to London. Ever since I’d started receiving my parcels of books, it had been my dream to move to London and finally throw myself one hundred percent into gay life. That dream had been created and fuelled by the books I’d read, so many of them had portrayed London as the centre of gay life in Britain, the San Francisco of British gay culture.

The reality of London both lived up to my dream but also disappointed me; so many things were different from what I’d imagined them to be. But London was also where Gay’s The Word had their bookshop, in the heart of Bloomsbury. Even its location sounded literary.

I didn’t rush to Gay’s The Word the moment I arrived in London; I didn’t have the opportunity. It was a month later that I was actually able to visit the shop.

One Saturday lunchtime, I took a tube train to Russell Square and walked the short distance from there to Gay’s The Word. When I found the shop, on a street made up of Victorian buildings with a large 1970s block of flats dominating one end of it, I was shocked at what I saw. I wasn’t mistaken, this was the right shop, its name was clearly on display above the plate glass window that covered its tiny frontage, but it was so small. It was tiny. It was as small as so many of the shops squeezed onto many of London’s streets. It was no bigger than the newsagent where I bought my morning newspaper.

It wasn’t the huge gay book superstore I’d imagined it to be. It was a tiny, dusty London bookshop, like so many others across the city. It wasn’t the glorious palace I’d imagined it to be. It was another of the disappointments I found in London. But this was a gay bookshop and I was running out of reading material, so I went inside.

Inside, though, was a different world, an Aladdin’s treasure cave of books. Though small, miles of wooden shelves had been squeezed into there, all filled to bursting with different books. The mail order service had had a wide range of books, but the shop itself was bursting full of different ones. I’d never have imagined there could be so many different lesbian and gay books in one place, let alone that so many had been published.

I was so excited, almost too excited to know what to do. So I simply started at one end of the shop and worked my way round to the other end of it, looking at every book I found. I was lost in the most perfect world to me, a world of books.

Gay’s The Word wasn’t the shiny, laminated bookstore I’d imagined; it was crowded and cramped, with dusty wooden shelves that were overstuffed with books. It was perfect though and I fell in love with it in that first moment I stepped inside. It was full of the widest range of queer books, journals and magazines; I was in heaven.

On that first visit there I stayed twice as long as I meant to and spent three times as much as I had intended to, but I didn’t care.

I’ve returned there many times, but how could I not when they love books as much as I do.


(I originally wrote this essay for a proposed anthology of true stories called My First Gay Bookstore. It was accepted, the editor liked my different take on the subject, and I was elated. But all good things… The anthology was never published, everything just went very quiet and I heard nothing.

But this is still an essay I like; it is a personal story but it is a different telling of a familiar subject. It shows one of the ways I slowly overcame my very isolated teenage years and is about a place that is still very special to me)