Monday, 27 October 2014

Two Authors In A Boat

The Background
In 2013 I encountered and 'followed' Anthony Howarth on Twitter. His tweets seemed to centre on his recent book about his and his wife's ocean sailing adventures (Boat, People & Me), along with his frustrations over various political injustices in the the world. I was drawn to them. There was irony and there were curt, irascible comments smouldering with dark humour, which I returned commented on. We agreed to read each other's recent books (I had recently had Long Road, Hard Lessons published) and pass honest comments. His story of learning to sail, buying a 30ft yacht in the UK, repairing her then sailing to La Coruña in Spain was as inspiring to me as it was entertaining. By the end of the book I felt I knew him fairly well. I think Tony felt the same after reading my story of the 10,000 mile cycle journey I made with my teenage son from Ireland to Japan. Hence my belief that it is not really so crazy for the two of us to agree to work together on Tony's current boat project, not having actually met one another, however wildly ambitious the project may seem to others.

The Teela Brown - 29ft Waterwytch by Maurice Griffiths built 1959

The Project
I think it was in early 2014 that Tony told me he and his wife (the impressive 'People' in his book) were planning to sell their current home and adjoining gites, located between Bordeaux and La Rochelle in France, then extend their old 30ft sailing boat by 5m to form a long 'barge yacht' for living and travelling on Europe's inland waterways. It sounded ambitious. Various sailing friends of mine used words like 'crazy'. Knowing something of Tony's background as an engineer and a car designer, however, I did not doubt his ability to make a good job of it. Moreover I had an overwhelming feeling that this was something I wanted to be involved in. I went ahead and offered Tony my help.

"He sounds like he might be difficult to work with," said a friend of mine.
"All the cleverest and most interesting people are!" I replied, undaunted.

Tony - The look that says 'Doesn't suffer fools gladly'

Hesitant Beginnings
The only hindrances proved to be financial (as many boat owners will know, such a project can easily run into large sums of money). I did not need or expect to be paid, I reassured him. There was one other problem Tony hadn't told me about. He had recently had one of his shoulder joints replaced and as yet could hardly use that arm. His doctor had warned him off such heavy work. Disappointed, I accepted that this was an immovable object. Since I had a work commitment to go to Asia for a year or so in 2015 it seemed I would not be helping even if the project went ahead after Tony had regained the use of his left arm.  However, after about a month had passed I received another e-mail from Tony.
"If you can spare 2 weeks in October, I would appreciate your help. My shoulder movement is much improved."

The Journey Down
On October 7th I set off from home in the rain during the early hours. I had taken delivery of a new
motorcycle 2 weeks before and had been looking forward to using it for the 800km journey down. I was not long out of the tunnel and into France when a predicted storm struck. I was travelling at fairly high speed along the autoroute minding my own business at the time. It was as if a dam had suddenly broken in front of me. In a second nothing was visible except the blurred brake-lights of large trucks and cars. I was already drenched. I closed the throttle and braked gently, hoping nothing was too close behind or that the 4x4 somewhere in front would brake too hard. I waited for visibility to return. It did not. I was riding blind, surrounded by large vehicles in a similar state of uncontrolled momentum. Fortunately none of us made contact before we had managed to slow to around 10mph. Cold and sodden I completed the rest of the journey with gritted teeth, determined to arrive at Tony and People's for dinner. Major challenges already and the boat work had not even begun!

Settling In
After a hot shower, dry clothes and great dinner I got to know Tony and People and our proposed agenda. The following morning we headed for the boatyard in Mortagne Sur Garonne. It was a pretty place. We drove to the boatyard in one of Tony's 'Africars'. These are cars that Tony designed to be used as affordable daily transport on the roads of Africa, where traditional 4x4 vehicles like Landrovers and Landcruisers still get stuck due to unworkable ground-clearance. They were featured in a five-part Channel 4 series in 1984 when they drove them from the Arctic to the Equator. Unfortunately, due to financial and political barriers at the time, they never went into full production. Experiencing the amazing qualities of these vehicles at first hand was a real privilege, and I really believe there is still time for production to happen.

The Africar - a truly amazing vehicle by any standards

Let The Butchery Begin
On our first day at the boatyard, Tony and I began by attacking the two fin-keels. Despite the nuts inside the hull having already been removed by the charmingly French boatyard owner, Claude, the bolts were pinched fast in the damp, swollen hardwood and marine ply. Even having driven the bolts out with great effort, the addition of a magically gravity-defying adhesive sealant named 'Sikoflex' used by Tony when he had extended the keels 15 years before in Florida, ensured that the extremely heavy galvanised steel keels refused to budge. Much chiseling and hammering was required before they were dropped. Following this achievement, day two proceeded with us drilling through the length of the main deep centre keel, then chiseling between the holes. The nuts of the 3ft long keel bolts had also been removed inside, but like the fin keels this huge and heavy sandwich of cast iron, hardwood and lead simply hung there. The eight huge threaded bolts were stuck fast. Pinched tight enough to allow the weight of that keel to sit there with daylight visible through the cut. Moving those long bolts at all proved impossible with normal tools. Perturbed, we took ourselves off to a builders merchants where Tony purchased a number of large steel log-splitting wedges and a 4kg sledge-hammer. This was my kind of tool. Judging by the distance he stood back I think I shocked Tony with my ability to swing it, given my skinny frame. Slowly, a millimetre at a time, the bolts moved. Buckets, of sweat, sparks and 3hrs of animal effort resulted in the driving out of the loosest bolt. It took a further day to remove 3 more before resorting to cutting the remaining bolts off with an angle-grinder. The keel came down with a sudden crash onto the waiting stands. By this time the stalwart Claude had moved the boat into a large covered shed.

Insect-like boatmover transports Teela Brown to a boatshed

 Main keel stubbornly refusing to budge despite wedges and violence

Finally after cutting through bolts the deadweight keel drops with a crash

Sawing A Woman In Half
The old keel lifted out of the way Tony proceeded to carefully mark out the cut line around the centre section of the 'Teela Brown's' hull. The following day, while Tony was away on other business, I ran a jigsaw around the marine-ply sections then finished the surgery with a nice sharp handsaw to cut through stringers, ribs and the agonisingly solid hardwood keel base. I felt nervous, as an apprentice magician might, sawing his first woman in half. Having expressed my reservations over my surgical efforts to Tony by phone, I was mightily relieved to receive his congratulations the following morning when he inspected the work. Soon after this Claude appeared at the open front of the shed with a large tractor pulling a boat-loading trailer. The bow-half of the Teela Brown was gingerly lifted forward with the insect-like square boatlifter and placed onto the trailer. With meticulous accuracy she was then moved forward until exactly 5m was left between the bow-half and the remaining stern. Measurements checked and double checked, both halves were fixed in place with supports, ready for the transformation work to begin.

"Tony, I will need a new saw"

The tense separation procedure ends with a couple of attractive cross-sections

The Transformation Begins
The first thing that became apparent to me, standing back and looking at the two halves of the boat, placed where they were destined to become fixed, was how utterly beautiful she was going to look at her new length. It almost seemed that she had always been intended to be that length. It was reassuring. Not such a crazy idea after all eh?

 The Teela Brown stretched to her future layout position
(I will not be doing the same with my motorcycle!)

Tony explains his plan to a group of amazed boatyard onlookers.
"Nobody has ever attempted such a thing before," says Claude.

"Now for some more gentle, technical work," I told myself.
But the hard physical work was not yet over. My next job, Tony told me, was to cut out stepped joints at each end of the old keel, ready to receive the new 5m longer new keel. For two days I ate and breathed hardwood chippings and sawdust. Somehow, whatever protective masks and equipment I wore, that stuff found its way into every orifice. So relieved was I when I finally completed this excruciatingly awkward task, that I celebrated by driving out the remaining five long keel bolts that remained stuck fast in the base of the hull. It was cause for celebration and only pure coincidence that we returned to Tony's lovely home that night to find that People had prepared fresh Garonne oysters (the best) for supper.

The Technical Bit
In the last few days of my visit, Tony and I prepared three large 6m long planks of iroko hardwood to bridge the gap between where my handsaw had cut through the base of the keel and where those two ends now stood. This was my first experience of using large quantities of epoxy adhesive on a boat hull. It is a messy business, dependent upon good planning and careful application. Tony taught me well. The following morning I was amazed to find that I could stand on the newly fixed wooden bridge and jump up and down with no ill-effects. This left us with two days to prepare the template for the sixteen new ribs to form the skeleton of the new 5m mid-ships section of the boat. To my great delight we actually managed to achieve that and to make the first sections ready to be sandwiched together with epoxy. By the time I left on my motorcycle for England, the transformation had truly begun to take shape, ready for a dramatic re-launch in July 2015.

 Two halves of the boat re-joined with small matter of a 5m gap to infill

Sense of hard-won satisfaction written across this man's face

The Sadness Of Leaving
I had learned a great deal about boatbuilding during my two intensive weeks of working with Tony and a certain amount about myself I did not already know. I had also learned a lot about Tony. My respect for his knowledge is only matched by my admiration for a somewhat frail one-armed man of 76 who would take on a project like this so calmly. Of course it is nothing compared to what he had to go through with his Africar venture. Tony will now work a week on a week off most of the time to ensure that he allows his shoulder to improve steadily. He will be assisted by his very capable wife. I feel sure that things will continue to progress well until the re-launch. Especially now that People is on the case.
I enjoy challenges, hence my desire to be involved in Tony's dramatic boat transformation project. After two weeks of nice warm weather, I was unsurprised to find myself riding through the tail-end of a hurricane as I headed north. But it was nothing compared to what Tony and I had managed to achieve in two weeks. Clinging on tight as I was buffeted about the debris-covered A10, I thought back on the day that the two halves of the Teela Brown had been separated. A crowd of boatyard onlookers had gathered open mouthed around the newly laid out boat as an audience might around two halves of a saw-wielding magician's pretty assistant in separated halves of a box. What was the plan, they asked?

"I'm doing it as a present for my wife," said Tony. "We need a bigger boat to live on but she didn't want to give up the one we have lived with for nearly 50,000 nautical miles. Too many memories."

Tony was once Britain's top magazine photographer, 
but 'selfies' were new to him.

If you would like to read Tony Howarth's book, 'Boat, People and Me', go to your local Amazon website or click this link:
Boat, People and Me on Amazon UK
Boat People and Me on

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Press Release – English Down The Pub

English Down The Pub is a new book written for use by both students of English and Teachers of English. It will also be of interest to those wanting to know about modern English culture. What readers will not be anticipating in a book of this type, is comedy. The book could be described as 'tongue in cheek', except that its mission is very serious.

The Language As It Is Spoken
It is a constant source of frustration for many, that foreign people studying English are taught language that is not authentic. Although it is technically 'correct' English, much of it is a form of English rarely used by real English people – at least not in the last fifty years. This book has been written in order to put that right. It provides the essentials of 'real' English – the colloquial language that you will find being spoken every day by real English people going about their normal lives. The author of this book believes that English Language teachers who are primarily instructing students wishing to speak modern functional English for practical conversational purposes, are doing their students a great disservice by not teaching them the language that the man in the street speaks. This includes giving them a working understanding of English swearwords and what is / is not appropriate – since we know that most English people swear at least socially and often at work too.

Realism and Humour
The book is structured to deal with common social functions, such as meeting people and making introductions, ordering drinks and food and making conversation. The dialogue is not the stilted or 'wooden' language one normally finds in a textbook, instead it is vibrant in its authenticity and often very humorous as a result. The reader or language learner is treated to such amusing scenarios as 'how to avoid a fight' and 'looking for love'. Since many people go to pubs to meet a prospective partner and most of us have witnessed aggression in drinking venues at some time, this does seem justified. In all scenarios both a formal and informal dialogue are given as examples. Something of the uptightness of the English is revealed in these comparative dialogues. This is culturally useful to language learners of course, but it can be hilarious to any reader and in particular the English themselves. Some of the swearing will be shocking to many English readers, but there is a refreshing honesty about it. Of course it goes without saying that learners need to be taught correct formal speech at the same time as the colloquial. The non-English reader needs to be made aware of just how critical it is to get the level of formality or looseness right with the English. Most English are still, after all, obsessed with what is or is not 'proper'. In order to make things clear, the rule in this book is that where people might swear or use slang in real life this is reflected in the dialogue, along with an explanation of meaning and where its use is appropriate. As a past EFL teacher of many years, the author has found this technique very popular with students in the classroom and has witnessed great upsurges of student enthusiasm as a result. Reading the book, one can certainly see why!

There are ways to liven up bored students

As if we had not been treated to enough comedy in this book, in the final chapter we find a choice selection of popular English slang and swearwords. This last section will no doubt prove popular and useful due to its authenticity, but not even the most serious elderly lady or the strictest vicar could fail to fall about laughing at the example dialogues or explanations given about the literal meanings of popular English swearwords.

Image courtesy of

Slang & swearing are endlessly popular with language learners

Despite all of this hilarity the book is very informative, both in its clarity about how the average English man or woman in the street communicates and about the still prevalent pub culture in Britain. Modern trends in public houses are helpfully explained, including the increasing trend for gastro-pubs and the emergence of micro-breweries and micropubs. Naturally the background related to English brewing and beer drinking is explained. This all provides a pleasing and unexpected bonus for those expecting merely to learn about the English language, which has to be a good thing. One can even imagine the book finding its way onto those bookshelves that one can still find in the WCs of the English gentry.

 Image courtesy of www.tvrecappersanonymous

Reviewer comments:
"Consider it a Pythonesque field guide to colloquial English. Invaluable to serious teachers and foreign learners, yet unforgivably hilarious to the rest of us. I ruptured myself laughing." Axel Anders.

The book English Down The Pub is available online only and priced very reasonably at £2.90 / $3.99

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Saturday, 22 March 2014

New Book Launch

The Truth In The Lie
After what seems like an age spend in the editing stage, The Truth In The Lie has finally launched. It has been a frustrating six months but looking at it now, it seems well worth the effort. I am so pleased with the cover. The story behind the cover photo is a fascinating one and will be the subject of a future blog post on its own. The editing of the stories was the work of my very literary eldest daughter, as described in the previous blog. She did a better job than I could ever have imagined. In fact I would say she is a natural.

The book has been out barely a day and already I am receiving feedback. Some people are fast readers. Thankfully that feedback has been good. As with my last book of short stories, people have commented upon the authenticity of the characters.

"Is that guy in Red Card based on the footballer you used to know in Ireland?"
"Be honest Mark, the Dottie in Dottie's Diary is based upon my friend Jo, isn't it?"
"I hope the cafe in All In Good Time is not my cafe, Mark. I could lose a lot of customers!"
"Mark, I read your book. Tell me, The story Traffic... how the hell did you know that about me?"

and most worrying of all –

"There seem to be several characters based upon you, who are all preoccupied with their mortality."

For a brief summary of each story, see the previous blog (below).

To find the book and to discover the characters for yourself you should click the link to Amazon or Smashwords below or in the right-hand margin of this blog.

Cover photo by Fumiko Jin - Taken in Hokkaido, Northern Japan. 
Story of the photo to follow in a future blog

The Truth In The Lie - Smashwords (all e-book formats)
The Truth In The Lie - Amazon UK (Kindle)
The Truth In The Lie - (Kindle)

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The Tyranny Of Editing

New Collection Of Short Stories – 'The Truth In The Lie'

My new collection of short stories, entitled 'The Truth In The Lie', seems long overdue to me. I thought it would be out long before Christmas but it's dragging its feet – or rather, I am. Some of these stories are new and I'm quite excited about them. Others were written a while ago. Before the last collection (Special Treatment & Other Stories) in fact. These are the stories I was not 100% comfortable with when the stories for the last collection was selected. "Better to hold these ones back," I said to myself. They needed more work, and I hoped, as many of us writers do, that the spark that would ignite each of them would come to me if I was patient. Periodically I have re-read them and on occasion ruthlessly edited them – slaying numerous darlings in fact – and around three months ago I felt confident that they were ready. At this point my very literary (despot) eldest daughter came home from working in a retreat in the Spanish pyrenees. She is home for a few months and asked if she could do some paid work for me.

"You could edit my next book of short stories," I suggested. "It's about ready to go but could do with a final check."
My Current Editor

The next day she began. Ten days later she presented me with a document with a mass of yellow 'Track Changes' suggestions. I have read through it. Unfortunately she has not been over-zealous. Although there were only one or two typos, she highlighted many areas where stories could be improved. I should be grateful but I must confess to some sense of frustration. It was not what I had been expecting. The publishing date has had to be pushed back to a major extent and that does not make me feel good.

And there was me thinking I had learned all I needed to know from my first two books! So having one's book edited is painful. Yes I knew that, so how could I have forgotten so easily? With my first book - Long Road, Hard Lessons - A non-fiction book about my 10,000mile cycle journey with my teenage son, I endured about two weeks of very defensive arguments with my content editor, who is an old friend. Him being an old friend probably didn't help in many ways. It certainly didn't make him any less brutal with me. In the end, however, I realised that he was right about 95% of what he said, so why not save myself the pain and just accept it, bar any parts where he had misunderstood my intended meaning.  The whole point of getting someone else to edit, is that however good we get at editing our own work, we will always need a separate pair of eyes and at least one outside point of view in order to make it as good as it should be. So this time I have not argued with my daughter - at least not yet. I am grateful for the fact that she has taken the job so seriously and made such an effort.

Image courtesy of

So whereas this blog should have been telling you that the new book is now available, instead it is telling you that it's not. What I can tell you, I will:

I have no cover yet, but I'm inclined to go for the same traditional (Penguin classic style) cover as with Special Treatment & Other Stories. I'm not a traditionalist by nature but I can't stand those cheesy (as I see them) airport thriller style covers that look like a graphic design student had a month to kill and needed to impress someone. I like the cover to intrigue the reader about what's inside rather than to get them so excited about the cover, that what's inside can only seem like an anticlimax. Or perhaps I just prefer 'classy' to 'loud'.

Story Genre
The stories are, like the last collection, subtitled 'Excursions Into The Lives Of Others'. They are somewhat voyeuristic in style. The reader may feel they are prying. Things are disclosed or hinted at which we feel perhaps we shouldn't know – some readers may even feel a sense of discomfort. Perhaps some of that discomfort is about the fact that most of us recognise something of ourselves and our own lives in these characters. Scary! But I sense that much of what seems to make people uncomfortable, is their own overwhelming desire to know more.
The title, The Truth In The Lie, was chosen because of the number of times I have been asked whether my stories are based upon truth. It seems obvious to me that every fictional story is based upon truth. Personal truths from past experiences or those I have heard of, and 'great truths'. Great truths may never have actually happened, yet they are universal truths of life, understood by all.

Story Outlines
My Only FriendAn elderly widow in Lisbon is estranged from her son who prefers to live in squalor and idleness since the death of the father he adored.

A Minor DistractionA rich American man on a train in Africa tries to tempt a poor young girl into his carriage while stopped at a wilderness station. The tragedy that ensues hardly seems to touch him.

Greta A pair of travellers arrive in a rural Hungarian hotel where all is not what it should be. They are shown to their room by a young woman who seems something of an automaton. 

All In Good Time A woman who runs a cafe is told she is being watched by the security forces. It seems unlikely until one of her staff disappears under strange circumstances.

Masaji A father and son attempt to escape from China on foot after their visa runs out. 

In The Line Of Fire A man in a war zone is attacked and hounded by those he once regarded as friends. They seem unwilling to allow him to leave the area, however.

Never Give Up Exhausted after several days at work, a man begins to experience strange occurrences while driving home through a long road tunnel.

Traffic An art dealer makes his first trip to Africa and almost immediately becomes the victim of not one but two carefully engineered scams – or so it seems. 

River Witch A young man camps by a river and is shocked to see a naked young woman float past as he lies in bed enjoying the early morning sun. How could he not go after her?

Red Card Once a promising professional footballer, Pat Carmichael becomes an alcoholic loser after he suffers a crippling injury. Finally after two years of depression he picks himself up.

Drawn To The Light Travelling home on his daily commuter train, David is drawn to something strange he sees in the dark while the train is stopped. What he sees transfixes him.

Dottie’s Diary Two women hill-climbing in Wales take shelter in a stone barn. Soon they are joined by a wealthy local woman who invites them home where they meet her husband. He is familiar to one of them. 

Burned On Him A rather reserved family meet for a weekend at the parents' house where a revelation by one sister causes an argument and unexpected consequences.

The ‘F’ Word A conversation overheard on a train with three children, their mother and her friend. 

The Bottle Lady of Luang Prabang Surreal happenings when a group of friends meet at their regular breakfast cafe by a busy main road. "The chink of glass in the early morning traffic haze."

If you would like to purchase 'The Truth In The Lie' (which is now available in print or as an e-book) please click one of the links to the main sales sites, where you can also find other stories by the same author:

Mark Swain on Amazon
Mark Swain on Smashwords

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Writer's Desire For Immortality

Something To Be Remembered By

Rather like being an actor or a singer, the chances of achieving fame or great wealth as a writer are slim. So allowing for the fact that many of us writers are either idiots, optimists or are blindly happy to delude ourselves, what is the motivation for the remainder?

Most writers remember that warm feeling we got the first time we saw our name on a book cover or our name at the head of an article in a magazine or newspaper. We probably never before in our lives believed that we would see it, and yet there it is. Even better, is the feeling when we pop into a bookshop in some far away town, city or country and see one of our books on a shelf. It still thrills me when people e-mail, Tweet or Facebook me pictures of my book on some far-away shelf. It is also a physical validation of what has been gained after months and years of hard work, excruciating editing and trying to find a publisher. It is satisfaction well deserved and well earned.

As they say, despite the undeniably enormous odds against you, if you don't buy a lottery ticket you can't win the lottery. We know the chances of us striking it big with a bestseller are small, but at least we are in the running. Like the lottery ticket that I never really believe will be a big prize winner, I check my Amazon sales reports just in case there has been a massive jump in sales for some reason. To some extent it makes life more worth living. If we have no hope then life is not worth getting out of bed for.

Self Image
Many of us are not happy with the image others have of us and this relates to more than the clothes we wear or our haircut. What we do for a living plays a major part. Some of us cringe when someone we meet socially asks us "So what do you do?" Few of us, I am guessing, are totally satisfied with giving an honest answer. I used to run a risk management company, specialising in workplace safety. Telling someone that, I felt, gave a poor impression of what I was really like. For myself I didn't care that much - in fact it amused me to make it sound as dull as possible and watch people's reaction. But I know I feel more comfortable now, telling people that I write books. I'd be a fool and a liar to deny it.

Photo courtesy of

This seems obvious really, but some people (like myself) actually enjoy the process of writing – the observation of life, the invention, the weaving of a story, making characters into real people and thrilling readers with a great ending. I won't say it's better than sex. That would be overstating it and would fall into the category of an unforgivable cliche. Not everyone enjoys writing. Many find the process absolute torture and feel no pleasure until they finish. Even then they fear bad reviews or awkward questions. The image of the tortured writer living in a garret is an attractive one for me, yet I seem unable to experience it for myself, however hard I try.

Photo courtesy of

This leaves the writer's desire for immortality. Death features in so many popular books as well as in paintings, music and in poetry. We are drawn to it, yet I dare say we all fear it in some way or another. Most writers have a desire for fame of some kind. At least they write in order to be recognised by others. Their greatest hope is that they might write something that people will still be reading long after they are dead. I don't need tell you why. Death is so final, isn't it. Wouldn't it be great if we could live on, even if only in the minds of others - and the more 'others' the better really. I lost my father as a teenager. He was only 37 and was seemingly very healthy so it was unexpected. It left me with many regrets about things I should have said to him and and done with him before he died. Perhaps if there is life after death us writers might find ourselves cursing ourselves for what we should and could have written, but didn't? People who know about my regrets over the things I failed to say to my father sometimes ask me for advice when their parents are old or ill. How can they avoid the same pitfalls, they ask, and not be left feeling later that they should and could have said this or that? Here is something I wrote as a reply this week. It might be helpful to share it and to draw a parallel with the need to be sure that we write everything we should while we can – and to make sure that what we write is bloody good!

Dear Bill,

How very sad to hear about your father. I have thought hard about your question regarding what you might say to him while you have the chance. I would make these comments:

1. When I can't think of anything to say, I have learned that what is usually needed is to ask questions (or keep quiet). 
Ask him what are his strongest memories about the two of you together, perhaps. This might enable him to say things he wants to say but finds difficult. It may open a door. This could be a huge relief to him, and therefore a great satisfaction to you, especially later.

2. For yourself, remember that many of us hold living friends and family in our hearts and minds. Perhaps they have emigrated or you are both too busy to see each other, yet we know they are there. They are real and we draw strength from them being there, however far away. It might be that you never see each other again, in fact, but you know they are still there. Realise then, that the difference between this situation and that person having died and moved on is only one of cold scientific fact. Scientific fact is not what binds you. Love, memories and emotion is what binds you and that will remain beyond death if you allow it to. It is about how we decide to see things. You may or may not wish to share this with your father. Personally I would, but that is a matter of personal choice.

I wish you well in this Bill, and commend you for your courage and determination to do something valuable, while your father is still here in body. Most shy away from that and regret it later.

Best wishes



Monday, 18 November 2013

Grown-up Gap Year

Why Should Kids Get All The Fun?

Many of us parents now find ourselves talking to teenage kids about what they will do on their gap year. So excited was my youngest daughter at 13, to see my son set off to cycle across the world, that she immediately began planning her own pre-university adventure. I began to take notice; and there was no doubt about it, the majority of teenagers now see it as an issue of not if they will have a gap year, but when - perhaps along with who will pay for it. For many it comes a close second to completing a university entrance form (UCAS in the UK). I don't begrudge them that. I do believe that a gap year can be a valuable part of a kid's education – learning the stuff they don't teach you in school. Useful stuff like how other people live and how lucky we are to have what we have. Learning how to speak other languages or even how to better communicate with people who do speak our own tongue. They can learn a lot. Learning where other places are in the world and what kinds of people live there. Learning how to get out of trouble and how to avoid it. Learning how to seek out a bargain or the best quality in things with limited funds. Learning the value of a good pair of boots, a comfortable bed and a wholesome meal. Why kids don't learn most of these things at school or at home anymore I don't know, but I won't get going on that one.

So basically then, a gap year is a great idea, even if you can't get your parents to pay for it and it has to involve work (actually I think it can sometimes be better that way). But what about those of us who left school before gap years were thought of? Well in fact there were gap years for the well-off around the turn of the 19th century and before – they were know as The Grand Tour – but I doubt anyone reading this will be that old. I have to say that was my feeling when my kids started to talk about gap years. "I wouldn't have minded having one of those myself!"

Grown-up Gap Years?
And why not? Sure it's great if you can go off and learn about the world before you embark upon a life of adulthood. There's no doubt in my mind that travel or working abroad will make a young person far more employable in the world of work and far better parents too, when the time comes. But that is not to say that this is the only way. There are a great many reasons for taking an extended break from work later on in life. Here are a few:

1. You didn't get one when you finished school so you feel you missed out, compared to others.

2. Your experience of the world is limited so you feel unable to share conversations with friends or your own children and grandchildren.

3. You are bored with the same old living and working environments.

4. You are stressed after years of work and have seen others getting sick from overwork.

5. You need fresh impetus in your life - both privately and in your work. A fresh look at things. An extended trip away might help you to find a new direction.

6. Your job has ended and you don't know what to do next. You need to clear your head – look at things from a distance.

7. You have retired and you want to catch up on things you've missed out on.

8. You find yourself single again and want to meet some different people in new environments that might spark unexpected friendships, or even a romance.

9. You are tired of short, expensive package holidays and want to go overland travelling, like you did when you were young. Backpacking and staying in hostels.

10. You want to have some adventures before it's too late. Before you are too old or unfit to enjoy it.

I did not necessarily think I needed an adult gap year. At 42 I had been running my own successful consultancy business for 3 years. Before that I had had several careers and had lived in many other countries. I had taken lots of breaks from work to go overland travelling before my children wore born, so I did not feel deprived. But I was working too hard. My son was 10yrs old and just getting to the age where we could go off on little adventures together – cycling, hiking and camping, mainly. It was after our first cycle / camping trip together one freezing English December, that Sam asked me if I would take a year off work when he finished school.
"What for?" I asked him.
"Well, I wondered if you'd cycle to Japan with me," he replied, nonchalantly.
8 years later we set off. But not before I had gone through a good deal of worry, trying to find someone to run my business while I was away.

As I have said, I did not need a gap year in the same way that other parents undoubtedly do. Or at least I didn't think I did. But the truth was I was overworked. Stressed. I had begun to focus only on work, with my family-life coming a poor second. I was there to provide for my family, I told myself. Someone had to pay for it all! But what I discovered over the next eight years, while I prepared for that gap year (actually I only started taking it seriously as a prospect about three years before we went), was that my family didn't want me to work so hard. My kids just wanted more time with me. My wife too, I think. She certainly didn't want to see me get a heart attack – and that was probably the way I was heading. So as I said, finding someone to run my business was a tough challenge just in order to escort Sam on a cycle trip from Ireland to Japan, but once we set off I realised something important. I didn't care about not earning so much money for a year. I didn't even care if I came home to find my business had folded. I had enough money for the trip and an adequate house. Why did I need more? My wife told me I should become a sculptor upon my return, since that is what I love doing. But the absence of phone calls, letters on the mat, bills, toilet cisterns needing mending or light bulbs changing – it was a revelation. I felt free in a way I almost never had. Not as an adult anyway. I felt reborn and I had hardly even been away for three days!

Why had I not done this before, I asked myself? I think because it never seemed possible. Too expensive. Too much time away. Perhaps it would have seemed irresponsible? My wife had certainly helped by telling me it was okay to do it. Good to do it, in fact. "You're allowed to enjoy it," she said.
But in the main, it happened because my son asked me to do it. Looking back, I can see that otherwise I probably would not have taken a break at all. Most likely I'd have kept driving myself to make my business evermore profitable, until I got sick or had an accident. Then I would have taken a break. Except I would never have been able to cycle 10,000 gruelling miles with an 18yr old. Not after a heart attack or cancer. No, I have my son to thank for my health, my peace of mind and a great later life.

Incidentally, I did not come home to find my business had folded. I found my new business partner had increased business by 45%. He told me he was happy continuing to run it largely without me. As a result I sat down to with my son to write a book about our experience (more about the trip and the book on my cycle travel blog) which subsequently became an Amazon bestseller. I never imagined myself becoming a writer or giving motivational talks to businesspeople, but I can see now that was my destiny. It's a life that fits me well, but I would probably never have achieved it if I had resisted taking those ten months off work to go with my son on his gap year. You will be unsurprised to hear that the trip did wonders for our father-son relationship (also an issue covered in the book).

Video of us cycling through 'The High Range of Travancore,' Munar, India. Click arrow.

My gap year was an adventure trip, covering 10,000miles from the west coast of Ireland, across Europe, through Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Korea and finally ending in Tokyo. But not all gap year trips need to be this way. I had an older friend in Japan who I taught English to when I was 25. He was a senior manager of a major Japanese trading company. An important and well paid job, but one he found rather mundane. Outside of work he had an interest in wild flowers and also watercolour painting. When he retired, he took a trip to a number of countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and China – seeking out unusual indigenous wild flowers and painting them. This eventually brought him to the attention of an international botanical society who asked him to submit some of his work. Over time it led to his becoming an honorary fellow of the society, giving talks all over the world. He had never imagined he could do such a thing. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago. He told me he felt fulfilled by his post retirement activities but wished he might have taken that first trip when he was a little younger. Who knows how that might have changed his life?

To find out more about my adult gap year and the resulting book, "Long Road Hard Lessons," why not have a look at the blog, where you will also find links to the book on Amazon, or just enter the title of the book into your local amazon search box. Thanks for reading – and remember to make the most of your life. 

Monday, 14 October 2013

Stories On My Doorstep

Dustbin Men - More Short Story Inspiration

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post about memory and how sounds, smells and images can spark them. The post was called 'The Spark That Ignites The Memory' and a lot of people commented on it. Several readers were particularly taken with the example of the milkman and the sound that sparks the memory of what was once a trademark sound of early morning in Great Britain. 'The chink of bottles somewhere in the early morning traffic haze,' as I put it in one of my early flash stories. One of these readers was my cousin. She commented that it would be nice if I wrote something about Dustbin Men. I told her she had won this week's 'Request a Blog-post Competition,' and that I would write it this week. So here it is:

Although milk delivery has severely declined in Great Britain since I was a boy, household waste collection to the doorstep is still currently alive and well. Recycling has perhaps made the job more complicated and outsourcing perhaps has made it more of a casual labour affair, but they are still there in one form or another, making a racket in the street. I find it reassuring – heartwarming in fact. These doorstep public services provide a sense of community that is in danger of disappearing. The daily visit of the postman or post-lady is a longed-for pick-me-up for many elderly and lonely people. Their one chance to see a friendly face every morning and to exchange a few words. Yes a few words.

I am not a lonely person. Neither am I old, but I often exchange a few words with our post-lady. Her name is Mandy. She has the happiest face and the cheeriest of dispositions. She's very energetic and wears shorts in summer – a little distracting for some customers, but only in a positive sense. Once or twice I have got her to slow down and chat on the doorstep for a couple of minutes. I asked her about her job.
"I had a friend when I was younger who got a job as a postman," I said. "It was less money than he'd been earning on a factory production line, he told me, but he didn't care. He absolutely loved it. He loved chatting to old ladies and popping in for cups of tea and biscuits. Their stories and their news. He loved helping people out – reaching things off a kitchen shelf for them or opening a stiff jar, and he loved being finished early when other people were only just at work."

"Oh those days have long gone," Mandy said. "They time us now, you know. We can't stop and chat, and as for going in for tea – forget it! It would be impossible. Once we've finished our round we have to go to the sorting office and work the rest of our shift there."

I told her I thought this was very sad. Not just for her. The community was biggest the loser. Especially the old and lonely or people struggling with problems and nobody to tell. In the past the Postie was the person who would notice a vulnerable person with a problem and alert a neighbour, their family or Social Services. I am in no doubt, a valuable service has been lost; not to mention the loss of job satisfaction and the people who left the job because of that change. How unbelievably stupid of us to allow this to happen.

In an effort to salvage something from these lost times perhaps, I often use scenarios surrounding these public service workers as inspiration for short stories. I only need to think of a postman delivering mail to spark memories and very soon I have a story. You can find a story featuring a post-lady in my book "Special Treatment and Other Stories." It's called Topolino and is about a man paralysed by a construction site fall, who is constantly trying to chat-up his pretty post lady, and yes, the post-lady is inspired by Mandy.

Image courtesy of

Dustbin men never had time to call in for a cup of tea in my recollection. They were always in a rush. But they were a part of that same community of essential workers. In the past, like postmen, someone might have remained a dustman all their working life – Eliza's father in the film version of My Fair Lady, comes to mind. They would have been known by most of the local people on their round. They were public servants, doing a job that most of us would not be prepared to do and for that they were afforded a certain amount of respect. These days the job tends to be done by contract workers; often recent immigrants who can't find other work and who leave when they find a more pleasant job. Local people don't know who they are. Invariably they are just people to complain about for leaving a mess. For these reasons they mostly have little pride in their work. My cousin has a vivid memory of the dustmen of old, and it is a memory shared by me.

I lived in various places around the world as a child and would come home to the seaside town of Folkestone in Kent for holidays. It was my father's home town so many of my relatives lived there. One Christmas in heavy snow, I was playing at my cousin Pamela's house. I was around ten years old and she seven, I think. I was a bit of an adventurer (troublemaker). We asked her mum (my aunt) if we could go out to play in the snow. We put on gloves, coats and boots and went into the garden. A snowball fight began. Pamela was tough and determined for a little girl but I felt unkind using her for target practice. I was looking around for something else to aim at when we noticed the dustcart coming along Brockman Road. Quickly I encouraged Pam to help make an arsenal of snowballs and line them up behind the wall. By the time the dustcart reached her house we must have had thirty or more. As the dustmen slithered about on the icy pavements with the old-fashioned metal dustbins on their shoulders, they were suddenly assailed by well aimed snowballs, causing one or two of them to drop their bins, spilling all manner of disgusting garbage over themselves and the street. It didn't take the dustmen long to work out what was happening. Leaving their work, they formed a small attack force and rushed the garden, flushing us out from behind the wall.

Climbing over the back wall and escaping into a neighbour's garden, the two of us frantically set about making more snowballs.
"If we go through to the front of this house, we'll be able to surprise them when they come into that next street," I said.
Hearing the large dustcart rounding the corner, we poked our heads above the front hedge. There they were with their heavy leather jerkins, (most binmen wore them) bins on shoulders, faces red with the cold and a previous pelting. We waited until the right moment, when they were in close range. All of a sudden the men were startled by the animal screams of two small children armed with a dozen hard packed snowballs, pelting them for all they were worth then scarpering to safety over the back wall. The dustmen re-grouped and began to give chase, hurling their own snowballs in reply and calling out after us.
"We'll get yer, you little buggers!"
Women came out of the houses to see what was going on.
"Make them clean up the bloomin' mess too when you catch 'em!" shouted one of the women.

Image courtesy of

All along the street and into several neighbouring streets these guerrilla tactics were followed. The dustmen suffered badly but never gave up. They were a match for us and hungry for the fight. Chaos reigned and bins in vulnerable areas were left unemptied. Customers became angry and joined the dustmen in trying to catch us, sure that we must be part of a large gang of troublesome youths.

"Maybe we should go home now?" said Pamela, cold and becoming fearful of the consequences.
"What! Just when we have them on the run – you must be joking?" I insisted.

Pamela was easily encouraged to continue. However, I should have got followed her instincts and got out while the going was good. As the battle progressed, the dustmen's tactics improved and they began to anticipate our sorties. Soon we found ourselves being the ones bombarded with snowballs and before long we accepted that we should retreat and live to fight another day. Arriving breathless and battered into my aunt's kitchen she asked what had been happening. Fortunately my aunt had a good sense of fun, especially where children were concerned.

"We attacked the dustmen with snowballs," we said.
"Right the way down to Victoria Grove," I said. "They were fighting back but we beat them, just Pam and me!"
My aunt smiled, before attempting a more serious face.
"But you'll get me into terrible trouble, you little monkeys! Those men have a job to do. If people's bins don't get emptied on time, who's doorstep are they going to come complaining to? You'd better get out of those clothes before the policemen arrive, otherwise they'll know it was you!"

She seemed serious. Quickly we got out of the wet clothes, boots and coats and went to play in the living room. It was about twenty minutes later when we heard the dustcart coming back along the road. Sure that they would not now recognise us, Pam and I went out into the garden to watch them sweep up what they had dropped during the initial attack. They recognised us immediately.

"Hah, we won in the end didn't we, you little buggers," they laughed.

We stood there open mouthed. Astounded to see them waving kindly to us from the back of the dustcart as they drove off.
Ah, they don't make dustmen like that anymore!

The book 'Special Treatment & Other Stories', including the Kinglake Short Story Prizewinning title story, is available via amazon.