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The shape of something

I have an idea, elusive and shadowy, but definitely there. The shape of something. The right something. It needs to be pushed and prodded (gently), given substance by being handled. Coaxed into the light so I can see it more clearly. A story. A novel. A something…

I am not a plotter. At least, not yet. Let the characters talk. Get a flavour of their voices; the tone of their behaviour. For now leave the ‘plot’ up to them – the sequence of events and the order in which those events unfold.

The crafting and honing and structuring and arcing and three-act-versus-fiveing, and the sanding and polishing and waxing and editing and proofreading and welding and cutting and turning and trimming and changing and sewing and betareading and previewing and wrapping-up-and-tying-in-a-bowing and serving-up-on-a-dish-for-your-delectationing, all can wait.

The things I want to write down, to capture wholly, comprehensively, exhaustively and to my satisfaction, are caught up in that twisting tumbling shape. They are the shape. They are to do with being and not being; the little things and the big things; things I’ve seen and known and things I wish I had; moments and continuums.

Happy Family is being serialised

As part of its pre-launch marketing process, Unbound have arranged for Happy Family to be serialised on The Pigeonhole. This is a great way to get reviews and build a buzz before its publication early next year. You can check it out and get early sight of the text here: If you do, please a leave a review.

This is both exciting and daunting because even though it’s pre-publication, it’s now ‘out there’.

So, where are we in the overall publication process? Well, all of the editing and final proofreading is complete which is why The Pigeonhole can use the text. In the next two or three weeks I will see the roughs of the cover design – I can’t wait for that – and shortly before Christmas, pre-publication digital versions will be sent to formal reviewers to get cover quotes – perhaps some of The Pigeonhole reviews will be used too.

After that, around February, it’s the full launch of the actual book and distribution to bookshops. Hooray!

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An Other’s Look has another title

After much discussion the working title of my second novel, An Other’s Look, has been changed to Happy Family.

I love this title because it works at so many different levels. The book is scheduled for release in early 2020 and it has now been through two rounds of developmental editing, a full line (copy) edit, and a full proofread. And some very nice things have been said about the book along the way – here are a few examples:

‘The novel feels extremely fresh and contemporary … One  of the clever things about the novel is that it shows how rather than bringing families together in the same way that board games such as Monopoly, Battleship, Cluedo etc used to, AR games can be used to drive families apart and further isolate the individual from society.’

‘As a comment on the way modern day game development could affect the whole idea of the happy family, and its invasive potential repercussions for vulnerable players, it is a sobering piece of work.’

‘Its imagined snapshot of the huge part AR may have to play in the future, and the hefty price tag consumer expectation versus reality may come with … is both fascinating and terrifying in equal measures. A particularly effective scene showing the disconnect between reality and the imagined world is both perfectly imagined and genuinely frightening.’

‘Could you please tell the author that I really enjoyed this book … I could even picture the characters… and who should play them in the film!’

I can’t wait to see the cover design.

Exploring the real world… volunteers

January, 2019

It’s that time of year. Our Christmas tree is lopsided and the fairy’s fallen off. The decorations are pulling paint off the walls, our pots and pans are charred and ruined, black bags are filled with body parts, guests cower in the shadows looking lost and frightened, ravens peck at carcasses, wolves howl, and there are the remains of a bonfire on the dining room table. I will never invite the sewing circle to tea again.

Sally navigated Christmas and New Year’s Eve unscathed but something happened to me. I changed shape. I am now round. A blob. And all my clothes have shrunk. This phenomenon occurs every year so fortunately I know what to do: I clear a space on the sofa and sit down with a pen and paper. It’s time to make my 2019 resolutions. First of all, obviously, I will never drink alcohol again. Right. What else? Oh yes, I will lose two stone, take up lacrosse, read medieval poetry, play the tuba, embrace veganism, run a marathon, learn to speak French and publish a bestselling novel.


I screw up the paper and throw it at the Christmas tree. I make the same list every year and nothing changes. I need better resolutions, resolutions that aren’t just about me living somebody else’s life. Let’s face it, I don’t know what lacrosse is and if I tried to run a marathon my skeleton would disintegrate. Thinking about disintegrating skeletons reminds me of the Bradford on Avon Preservation Trust – I wrote about their need for volunteers last year – and in turn that reminds me of something I want to ask you.

You know where the Tithe Barn is, and the Coffee Barn? Well, part of that cluster of impossibly old buildings is the West Barn. I love the West Barn. They say it was once a porch for a much bigger structure. A porch! It’s over 700 years old and looks fabulous, although in fairness, after lying fallow for a while after a fire in 1982, it’s had a bit of a makeover. But even so. It’s a tough little thing, proud and resilient despite starting out as a place for people to wipe their feet and hang up their coats.

These days the West Barn hosts concerts and recitals, exhibitions, weddings and all sorts of other functions. And it’s usually open to the public on Wednesdays and Sundays between spring and autumn. These regular open days are run by volunteers – people who give up a couple of hours of their time to sit in the West Barn and be on hand should a visitor have a question. It’s important work.

And that’s what I want to ask you. Last year I made a resolution that I kept: Make a Choice; Be Involved. Now I’m a volunteer coordinator for the West Barn open days and we need more volunteers. So I’m reaching out from this article to you, to ask if you would join us and give the occasional two hours to sit in that beautiful building on a Wednesday or Sunday, and be part of its living history? If you would, then please email me or the Preservation Trust at or

I suppose I should look for that fairy now. But before I do, may I wish you all a happy and peaceful New Year – and watch out if the sewing circle knock on your door. (Author’s note: any resemblance in this article to the aftermath of tea with an actual sewing circle, existing or otherwise, is purely coincidental.)

Exploring the real world… Goldilocks pubs

February, 2019

According to a recent census there are almost 10,000 people living in the parish of Bradford on Avon (north and south wards). More than 80% are 18-years-old or older which means there are roughly 8,000 adults living in an area of slightly more than five-square-miles. It doesn’t say how many dogs are resident here; probably two or three times that number.

In addition, our town accommodates the weekend and day visitors who come to look at attractions such as the Church of St Laurence (I still marvel at the fragment of fossil tree in the chancel), or to have their photograph taken outside the Bridge Tea Rooms (I don’t know if the census included the ghost), or to push me into the road while they take a selfie on the town bridge.

And on top of that, there are the towpath and riverbank ramblers who pass through every day, and those speedy cyclists who like to ting their bells without an accompanying please or thank you and then spray me with mud (yes, I am a cyclist myself but I am polite and considerate and they are clots).

This adds up to a lot of adults. I mention it because the other day I overheard a person saying that if ever there was a place to run a pub, it is here. Their logic was that in such a compact town where most people walk when they go out, drinks-per-punter must be higher than in communities where people tend to drive more. In short, Bradford on Avon is a Goldilocks town for publicans.

I am not suggesting the average BoA citizen passes out every night in a messy alcoholic heap but I do think that person was on to something. One of the attractions of living in Bradford on Avon is the close proximity of everything to everything else. It is all on our doorstep. There is no need to take the car when we go out – which, when you consider the average Briton spends more than two days a year waiting for traffic lights to turn green, is a good thing.

Clearly, others have seen this opportunity. If we include The Swan, Timbrell’s Yard and The Lock Inn Café, there are, I think, sixteen pubs in Bradford on Avon (I apologise to all local pubologists if I have missed any). Sally and I have been to most of them and I feel quietly confident that we have done our bit to support the town’s drinks-per-punter quotient.

Perhaps a benefit of this strong pub presence is that it encourages both competition and an element of specialism which gives us, the enthusiastic customer, a diverse range of venues from which to choose – from traditional to modern; from picturesque to characterful.

At least three pubs host first-class live music (check out The Three Horseshoes on a Sunday afternoon) and nearly all are child friendly (10% of people are under nine-years-old in BoA). Most serve great food, have guest beers and welcome dogs with open paws. Some run pub quizzes and three have nailed the ancient art of punning (the sign for The Stumble Inn always makes me happy).

It is interesting how simple numbers and percentages can reflect social opportunities. For example, according to the Office of National Statistics 0.2% of the working population make a living as ‘authors, writers or translators’. That means, theoretically, I have nine comrade-in-pens living in Bradford on Avon. We should get together and go out. I know a good pub – come to think of it, I know sixteen good pubs.

Exploring the real world… a Christmas Carol

December, 2018

Bah! That’s what I used to say to Christmas. Humbug! An annual mugging of my hard-earned moolah. Decorations? Boughs of holly? Spare me the jingly bells and chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I was a writer, jaded by Amazon algorithms. What use was festive cheer to me? But then last Christmas, our first in Bradford on Avon, something… well, something rather odd happened.

It was a cold and frosty Christmas Eve and a chill wind was a-howling and… no, hang on, it was quite mild. Anyway, Sally was out with her friends singing carols and drinking shots, and I was huddled by a candle at the kitchen table going through the royalty payments for my novel, The Wrong Story. How could they be negative numbers?

Then, as the clock struck midnight, the candle went out. I was in utter darkness. I felt a draught on my neck as cold as ice, and an ancient smell of buried bones filled my nostrils. I shuddered with disgust. I’d left the fridge door open. I rose to close it and saw hovering behind me a ghostly face staring into mine. “Oh my God,” I said, backing away and raising my arms in the shape of a cross. “How much have you had to drink?” Sally was home.

There’s no negotiating with her when she’s in a merry mood, and for the next hour she sang karaoke to Christmas Hits Of The Seventies before falling into a deep and untroubled sleep on the sofa.

I wasn’t so lucky. I began to think about all the unwanted presents I’d passed on to other people. All the mince pies I’d taken for free at open evenings, the home-made mulled wine I’d poured into potted plants, the puppies I’d bought just for Christmas, the banning of Slade from the house. I felt a stirring in my hard writerly heart – was it indigestion or guilt? I lit another candle and brooded.

That’s when the odd thing happened. The flame above the candle seemed to reform into a golden fish. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. Yes, there it was, a gudgeon, it’s wide rubbery mouth turned downward, its lidless eyes regarding me with distinct disapproval. It floated away and I felt compelled to follow.

We stepped into a future Bradford on Avon. The year to come in which Sally and I would sing at folk nights in The Swan Hotel, bell ringers would invite me to their practice, Timbrell’s Yard would make a fuss of us, The Stumble Inn would welcome us. The Wrong Story would be on sale in Ex Libris and my new novel, An Other’s Look, would be crowdfunded by Unbound Books. We would walk beside canals and rivers and watch bands play in The Three Horseshoes. And I would write surreal articles like this for the Gudgeon.

I awoke to daylight and the sound of Christmas bells. My dream was fading but the sense of optimism remained. I went into the living room where Sally was still on the sofa. “Merry Christmas,” I shouted. She winced, gave me the thumbs up (at least, I think that’s what she did) and went back to sleep.

Author’s note: no puppies were harmed before or during the writing of this article. The Wrong Story is selling but please do buy one. An Other’s Look is still crowdfunding and you can pre-order a copy at And to all the kind people who have made Sally and me so welcome, thank you. See you all next year.

Exploring the real world… the canal

November, 2018

In 1794 the first sod of the Kennet and Avon Canal was cut in Bradford on Avon. What interests me about that moment is the phrase, ‘first sod’. Every description of that inaugural digging uses those words. Not ‘first clod of earth’, not ‘first dollop of mud’, but always ‘first sod’. It’s not how I’d like to be remembered but then again I’m not a lump of turf. The thing is, whoever wrote it that way nailed the moment and now no other words will do. And that got me thinking about canal words and about the canal in general.

The original idea was to join two stretches of river and create a navigable waterway 87 miles long from Bristol to Reading. This proved to be a good idea until the Great Western Railway came along and spoiled everything with its so-called speedy transportation. This is something I cannot understand at all. In my experience, travelling from Bradford on Avon to Bristol at 4mph in a narrowboat is a lot faster than waiting for a GWR train to show up on time.

Anyway, the canal fell into decline for a hundred years until some lovely people, mostly volunteers, restored it. And here’s where I discovered another fabulous canal word: re-puddling. Isn’t that wonderful? Not just puddling, but re-puddling. The section at Limpley Stoke had dried out and as we all know, canals work best when they’re wet. So it was made watertight again by re-puddling it with puddling clay. I only wish I had more opportunities to use that word.

You might be thinking at this point what’s going on with this article? It’s full of facts. James doesn’t do facts. Well, the canal has become important to me and I thought some backstory might be useful. You see, every day Sally and I walk along the river, up to the swing bridge and back along the towpath. We’ve been doing this for over a year through snow, mud, dust, midges and bell-tinging cyclists. And my favourite part of our walk is always the canal. There is something very inclusive, very human about the canal.

Perhaps it’s because like people, its energy and pulse are constrained within artificial, societal boundaries. Or perhaps it’s because the canal is a symbol of connecting human endeavours. Or perhaps it is simply that like us all, it needs a helping hand every now and then. I often think the rhythm of the canal ripples into the wider town – not literally of course, or we’d be soaked – but in a mindful, thoughtful, 4mph kind of way.

Originally designed to sew together two stretches of river, I see the canal now as a common thread that is stitched into our community. It makes time for everyone, sharing itself amongst the walkers and cyclists who use its towpaths; the liveaboard boating community who make it their home; the bream, tench and gudgeon (yay) that swim in its waters; the heron and kingfishers that sit on its banks; and people like me who are happy to know that just because something has been puddled, it doesn’t mean it can’t be re-puddled.

On our walks I’ve noticed that ‘respect’, ‘politeness’ and ‘tolerance’ are also appropriate canal words – along with a generous dollop of the phrase ‘community spirit’. And talking of dollops, I wonder whatever happened to that first sod? Perhaps our excellent local museum has it in a jar somewhere. If so, I hope it’s been labelled correctly. No other words will do.