Happy Valentine's Day!


A Time to Die

December 2023 

There’s been a lot going on in our house lately. Retired people will probably echo our own thoughts (minus the gratuitous swearing) about it. – ‘How the fuck did we actually manage to hold down a job in those days’ - is almost a weekly mantra when we find ourselves with no time to do anything.

          Writing has taken a bit of a backseat since Death on a Cruise was released in 2021, even though I’ve soldiered on when I could. To be honest, my affection for Neil Mackenzie has waned – plots are harder to think up and, quite frankly, I’m bored of all of them: Neil, Rocky, Gere and Rachel.

          Anyway, I’ve just published the latest and last Neil Mackenzie in Kindle and paperback form. They cost £1.99 and £7.88 respectively. They’ve both been ready for a few weeks, but I took my own advice this time and didn’t rush the process of editing the grammar and formatting of the story. I hope they’re as virtually perfect (in those senses!) as any self-published book ever can be.

          I hope some of you will download it or even buy the paperback (don’t worry about making me rich – the previous six books have netted me virtually bugger all). I think they’re good. BTW if you haven’t read any of them, I would start with the first, The Big Keep, and see if you like that one.

August 2023

 

I originally published The Big Sister and The Big Finish on Amazon in 2013 and 2016 respectively. As the years have gone by, I’ve reread them both several times and, whilst doing so, spotted more than one or two errors/typos, and corrected them. Of course, in my innocence I thought that that was that – they were perfect in that regard.

          How wrong I was! This month I’ve methodically gone through them again and made changes where it was strikingly obvious that they were needed. So, I hope that they are now okay. I’ve undoubtedly missed a few mistakes, but I’m not a professional proof-reader and they are, IMHO, still a damn good read anyway. How the fuck I ever managed to write them is a mystery to me.

And if you can’t bear reading anything, especially if it’s written by me, Andy Sparke is getting them published in a few months as audio books!

Dick Skinner 1925-2023

 If you’ve ever read The Big Finish and the later Neil Mackenzie books, you’ll be aware of Neil’s friends and neighbours, Carol and Dick Skinner. I described Dick in TBF as:

 “…a fresh-faced sixty-something looking eighty-five-year-old with well-matured and bespectacled Richard Todd features, greying Dirk Bogarde hair and George Saunders’ voice. Carol was cheerful, small and petite and looked like the sort of auntie everyone wished they had.”

 Sadly, in real life, Carol passed away a couple of years ago, leaving Dick bereft and alone. For a while, he himself had already been succumbing to Alzheimer’s, and this blow sent him further into the abyss. So yes, they were both real people and not only Neil’s fictional friends: my lack of imagination meant that I used them to enhance the stories about Neil.

Dick died on July 28th, exactly two years to the day after Carol had passed away. My impression was that for months he’d wanted to go but that his body had refused to die. 

I’m not going to write him a eulogy, but he was a friend and a man I could trust. I’ll leave you with another extract from TBF:

 ‘Jesus, Dick,’ I groaned. ‘You’ve killed the bastard.’

Dick was an ashen colour, but he managed to say grimly. ‘The police are on their way – you looked like you needed a hand.’

RIP Dick, I loved you.

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Sister: Some Background

The second book in the Neil Mackenzie trilogy is The Big Sister. Like the first, where its title, The Big Keep, is a nod in the direction of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, this one might cause the reader familiar with the Philip Marlowe stories to remember The Little Sister. Admittedly the said book is a largely forgettable novel, but even as an alcoholic Chandler could still write unforgettable prose. For example, the first page is a masterclass in how to write – each sentence a model of how the English language can say so much with the minimum of words and still be effortlessly interesting, evocative, funny and engaging. For example, he describes the approach to his office thus: “It is a reasonably shabby door at the end of a reasonably shabby corridor in the sort of building that was new about the year the all-tile bathroom became the basis of civilization.”

 The Big Sister is my favourite Neil Mackenzie story. It’s his last Autumn term in teaching before he, Rocky and Gere are planning to start Calverley Investigations and Security Consultants in the New Year - so we get an authentic view of school politics as well as life beyond the classroom. He also gets to meet the hottest movie star on the planet. Theresa and I had the idea for this strand of the story years ago one Friday night after a bottle of wine had sufficiently lubricated our minds to be able come up with it. I let the idea knock around in my head for a few months and then sat down and wrote it.

 In case you were wondering, Theresa is really Tina in disguise in this and The Big Finish. Oh, and Sasha is also based on her in The Big Keep. The similarities are fairly obvious when one comes to think about it – the English teaching, left wing politics, sex appeal and the nipple piercings come immediately to mind. Anyway, I digress - just as in my own life there are plenty of femme fatales and sex, it’s much the same in a Neil Mackenzie novel and I’m only mentioning it now because it seems like a good way of drawing in any potential readers who like their books to contain a healthy helping of smut.

 So there are two strands to the plot – the intrigue in the staffroom at Mid Kent Grammar and Neil’s relationship with Rachel. The former revolves around a vindictive senior management team’s vendetta against one of Neil’s friends. Neil characteristically gets involved in an attempt to try and help and, hey presto, we have an unlikely scenario that I’ve a feeling most teachers will find highly entertaining. And, in case you and possibly any lawyers were wondering, the SMT isn’t based on any that I’ve ever had the misfortune to work for.

 The second strand of the novel involves Neil’s friendship with Rachel. After meeting her in Venice while he’s on a school trip, she comes to England to make a film where she employs the embryonic CISC to research her family tree. Neil and Rachel, thrown together more by loneliness than anything else, become friends. As Christmas approaches Rachel’s maternal grandparents are found and in the process a threat to her life is uncovered. Although she dismisses the suggestion that she is in danger, Neil, Gere and Rocky aren’t so sure and the scene is set for a thrilling climax if you’re the sort of reader who likes the good guys to come through. Or very nearly the finale – there’s still Neil’s leaving do to negotiate and the question as to whether Rachel will forego an LA meeting with George Clooney to discuss a remake of Casablanca  for an evening with the staff at Mid Kent. Tough one.

The Big Keep Update...

We’ve probably all heard someone say, ‘I’m going to write a book one day!’, whilst simultaneously thinking, ‘No, please don’t’ or even ‘For fuck’s sake!’ The reasons are myriad but probably boil down to the conviction that the person concerned is an idiot who couldn’t possibly write anything you would want to read. And, of course, not many of us read much anyway.

I was an avid reader when I was young and a regular visitor to the local library. I’d like to say that I loved the classics or even the output of great writers, but that I’m afraid, wouldn’t be true. In my teens I may have forced myself to read a lot of heavy novels by writers such as Solzhenitsyn, but my preferred genre was Westerns and similar trash. You see, I was always searching for writers that would both entertain and move me and those are, in my experience, hard to find: so I compromised.

When I was in the sixth form, however, I found The Big Sleep on one of Terry Crump’s bookshelves. Even though Terry dismissed it as a ’pot-boiler’, I loved it, and had soon read all of the Phillip Marlowe stories. Although the plot-lines, whatever Terry might have suggested, were weak, I liked Marlowe because he wasn’t your usual literary knight in shining armour. He was brave and somehow, lonely: upright and yet strangely set apart from the people he lived amongst. So, you guessed it, when I fell out with the Head at TWGGS in 2007, and resigned from teaching, I decided to see if I could come up with a similar hero to Phillip.

            In 2011, I published The Big Keep on Amazon. For me, who is only averagely competent on a computer, it was easy, too easy. The manuscript had also been through the hands of Theresa Dickens, English teacher and my most enthusiastic critic so, after her caustic feedback, I was pretty sure it was okay.

            How wrong I was! Yes, although I say so myself, it’s a great story but it was ruined, at least for me, by typos that were well, embarrassing, in their frequency and scope. There’s no question that I should have taken longer to proof-read and edit the manuscript, and this is the advice I always give to new writers – take your time before you publish! Somebody like Richard Osman, for example, has all the resources of his publishers behind him to ensure his books aren’t flawed by typos and ridiculous plotlines, while a self-published author has nobody else except himself or barely literate friends or a wife to rely on.

Over the years I’ve republished The Big Keep on four or five occasions, and I repeated the exercise recently. This time the file was gratifyingly free from errors and, after my latest read through is almost as perfect as I think I can make it.

So, thanks to all those family and friends who reviewed it favourably despite the above. I am very grateful.

 

 

                                                                                       July 14th 2023

I would say this wouldn’t I: my mum really was a remarkable woman. I know this because I had a close-up view of her life.  She never did anything that one could call measurably great in the fields of politics, business, sport or the arts but in many ways she achieved more. I’ll explain.

Her own background was one of rejection: women of her age weren’t really valued except for their looks, and she also suffered the twin heartache of being neglected by both parents.  Her dad was ethnically Japanese and lived in America. He only saw mum once or twice as a baby and ignored her for the rest of her life.

If her dad’s neglect was mostly generated by ignorance and oversight, however, her mother was more actively cruel. Without going into details, mum eventually ended up living with a Methodist couple in Andover until she was old enough to strike out on her own. And when her mum eventually died, the pair of them were still estranged because of the older woman’s vindictiveness.

My mum brought my brother and I up single-handed. In those days it was an exceptional circumstance, and she did it in an exemplary manner. Steve and I were always impeccably turned out and throughout my childhood I never once saw her smoke or drink. She sacrificed everything for us.  I even remember David Richards, the toughest boy at our school, chuckling to me and saying, ‘I’m never going to hit you Chris because your mum would fucking kill me.’

So, when I see people looking good in the public eye it hardly registers – I wonder how they are with their kids or in their inner life. Looking good to the world doesn’t count for much where I’m concerned. It’s what’s underneath that counts and for that I have my mum to thank.

She would have been a hundred and one today.

July 10th 2023 Neil Mackenzie 6

Well, against all the odds, I’ve made some progress with the latest Neil Mackenzie. It comes in two parts: one set in Kent and the July 10thsecond on the Costa Blanca in Spain. I know, Theresa and I have bought a house in Spain, so that a man like me - who is famous for his lack of creativity - was bound to set part or even all of a book on the Iberian Peninsula. Obviously, that’s why Death on a Cruise had to be written (I’ve been on a lot of cruises).

 

The origins of the next instalment, A Week is a Long Time, however, aren’t the least bit obvious to me, and I wrote the fucking thing! I’ve never been to Georgia nor had anything to do with people trafficking, but one day I started writing and it just kind of happened. It’s good as well.

 

Enough about my writing technique (or lack of it). I was telling you how Neil Mackenzie 6 is going. Well, it wasn’t before yesterday, because the Kent section had hit the buffers. I’d rejected my previous tries because they felt tired and unrealistic (why change the habit of a lifetime I hear you say) and I didn’t want to churn out another story just for the sake of it. Writing requires effort so that you have to believe in what you’re writing about. A similar thing happened to me near the end of The Big Finish: one perceptive reader told me he realised when he was reading it that I was in a hurry to finish the book off…and he was right!

 

I don’t know if my latest attempt to write a satisfying Kent section will succeed but I’ll let you know. In case you’re wondering, I’m happy with the Spanish half although whether the locals will share those sentiments remains to be seen!

                                                                                    May 2nd 2021

                                                                          Neil Mackenzie Rides Again


Or should that be sails? Probably - anyway you guessed it - I’ve been writing another book through the various lockdowns. And, as things stand, I’m done because, as I write this, there aren’t any more Neil Mackenzie stories in my creative locker. It’s as empty as the moral fortitude supply at Number Ten.

So, I hear you cry, what’s this one about? Well, it started with an idea I had years ago when I was having dinner with Theresa on a cruise somewhere. Every day when we were leaving the restaurant, we would pass a table for two seating a middle-aged, thickset man and his wife. I couldn’t help but notice his appalling table manners: he held his cutlery in two podgy fists and was usually shovelling his food down his mouth with gay abandon. I remarked to Theresa that somebody ought to shoot the bastard because of the way he ate and, in Death on a Cruise, somebody does just that.

 I know, how on earth could I go about building a convincing plot around that as a starting point? Well, all I can say is, I’ve tried. It took a lot of doing, because on a cruise the wall-to-wall CCTV means that it’s hard to get away with anything, let alone building a convincing narrative. So I’ll leave it to both of my readers to judge.

Death on a Cruise comes out in late May on Amazon Kindle and in paperback.

 

 

Update

 

Three months on and sales are as expected – it’s lucky I don’t rely on writing to keep the wolves from the door! Not enough reviews, but the ones that have passed Amazon’s tests are pretty good. If I were the type, it would be quite disheartening for the books not to be recognised but I’m realistic enough to realise that you need a lot of luck for that to happen.

Actually, I can understand why sales are measured in tens rather than thousands – I’ve no public profile and people usually buy books based on a reasonable certainty that they will like them. So far as the latter is concerned, buying a Neil Mackenzie is a shot in the dark. I know, because I’ve had the misfortune recently to read several independently and vanity published books and most are dreadful.

If only someone famous would read a Neil Mackenzie and like it!

 

 

 



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